You may not have noticed – and, with all eyes focused on BP and the oil disaster, that’s not surprising – but the Obama administration is making a major push to convince Americans that it can manage taxpayer dollars better. This effort, however, may distract from the more vital push to convince taxpayers that they must accept major spending reductions, tax increases, or both to restore the nation’s fiscal health as soon as the economy is strong enough to withstand it.
When I last checked, all of Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag’s blog posts on OMB’s homepage focused on better management. And Orszag gave a high-profile speech last week on better management at the Center for American Progress.
None of this is surprising, for the blog posts and speech reflect the White House’s larger recent focus on management and performance. Consider what’s been happening since early last week, as recounted by White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer in his own June 10 blog post:
- The president directed the Health and Human Services Department to cut errors in Medicare payments in half over the next three years, and he directed agencies to better use and get rid of their excess real estate holdings.
- White House officials announced plans to create a new incentive for domestic agencies to save money on administrative expenses by letting them keep half the savings, matching the Defense Department’s existing authority. They also announced plans to use information technology to save taxpayer dollars and make government services more convenient and cost-effective.
- In planning for the president’s 2012 budget, officials reiterated Obama’s commitment to a freeze on non-security-related spending, and they directed agencies to identify their five lowest-performing programs.
Also recently, the president asked Congress for what’s called “expedited rescission authority,” which would require Congress to take an up-or-down vote on the president’s proposals to rescind–that is, cancel–spending. The proposal is designed to be a constitutionally acceptable version of the presidential line-item veto, which President Bill Clinton used to cancel individual items in tax and spending legislation until the Supreme Court struck it down.
Why all the focus on management? In a historical sense, Obama is no different than his recent predecessors. As public trust in government has declined since the late 1960s, all presidents since then have proposed agendas of better management. Some recent ones have proved at least partly successful. The “reinventing government” initiative that Vice President Al Gore ran for Clinton helped the administration reduce the size of the federal workforce, streamline operations, and empower front-line workers. (Full disclosure: I was involved in it from outside and then within the White House.) President George W. Bush's management agenda also received at least mixed marks from management experts.
That’s all fine. But I wonder whether the management focus carries a potential downside in this era of soaring red ink. Many Americans already believe that the federal budget is dominated by things like earmarks, congressional perks and other questionable spending. The administration’s focus on saving money on discretionary programs in general and on things like administrative costs in particular may feed this misguided belief.
Administration officials, of course, would say they must prove their fiscal bona fides by showing Americans that they will save money wherever they can if they ever hope to build public support for a more serious deficit reduction effort. I hope they’re right. I fear they may not be.
Click here to read the previous Capital Exchange post.
Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.