Sequestration “austerity” vs. government extravagance

Here’s a little story to ponder while you listen to the latest White House horror story about how the first dollar cut from the $3.6 trillion federal budget must be flayed from the hides of firefighters, teachers, and combat troops:

The infamous Las Vegas bash held by the obscure General Services Administration wasn’t that unusual after all.

The lavish 2010 conference, which cost over $800,000, had lawmakers fuming last year. But a new congressional report shows taxpayers picked up the tab for at least 894 conferences in 2012 — to the tune of $340 million.

Those figures only cover “big-ticket” conferences — or those that cost $100,000 or more — so the total figure is likely higher.

The numbers, released in conjunction with a hearing Wednesday on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, come as the federal government braces for automatic spending cuts set to hit Friday. Some lawmakers have claimed that Washington could offset the impact by trimming the waste — be it low-priority hires, needless government studies, or conferences.

To be sure, $340 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the $85 billion sequester (which is actually more like $44 billion in practical terms for the coming year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.)  But sequestration is, in turn, a drop in the bucket compared to the $3.6 trillion budget.  It’s not even all that large a slice of the nearly $900 billion deficit projected for the year.

And these extravagant conferences are, as the House Oversight committee seems determined to demonstrate, one of many ways in which Uncle Sam lives very high, and very carelessly, on the hog, even though he’s about $17 trillion and counting past “broke” – and he’s got another $100 trillion of entitlement obligations to pay.  There is nothing about the current federal culture that suggests a belt-tightening mindset, comparable to the one they expect the rest of us to adopt while we grapple with a moribund economy and rising tax demands.  Washington won’t even make do with less in the smallest ways, from conferences and low-priority hires to the President’s fabulous luxuries, vacations, and “official” excursions.  The proverbial man from Mars would observe the loose spending priorities of these officials and conclude American government was rolling in dough, not running 30 or 40 percent deficits every year, projected eternally into the future.

Maybe that’s one reason these tiny sequestration cuts produced such a panic in Washington.  Not only does President Obama want to stoke that panic for political reasons… but even if he didn’t, he presides over a vast array of agencies that aren’t even certain what they’re spending all those billions on, and haven’t got a clue where to begin when they’re told to make do with less.