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Commentary


This Article Originally Appeared in NTU's Newsletter "Dollars & Sense"...

April 28, 2011
By Douglas Kellogg
By Pete Sepp

One on One with Taxpayers: Senator Mark Kirk discusses "WasteBook on Facebook" and Spending Reform

National Taxpayers Union Executive Vice President Pete Sepp recently sat down with Appropriations Committee member, freshman Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) to discuss his “WasteBook on Facebook" initiative, and to get his take on budget reform.

Pete Sepp (NTU): Former NTU Board Member, Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) originated the ‘Golden Fleece Award,’ which was bestowed upon wasteful government projects. What inspired you to restore this tradition, in the form of the Silver Fleece Award?

Senator Mark Kirk (Sen. Kirk): Because he did good work and we need to highlight government waste and abuse to strengthen the will to cut spending.


NTU: The first Silver Fleece Award went to a $998,000 grant by the Institute of Museum and Library Services for signs with poetry in zoos.  A $615,000 grant to build a Grateful Dead archive was second, and in last place was a $456,000 grant by the National Science Foundation to Stanford University for a study of online dating and why political figures were vague on social networking sites. 


These expenditures are definitely comical. Why do they even exist in the first place?


Sen. Kirk: Because there is a breakdown in discipline by federal authorities who are not very accountable; at a time when 40 cents of every taxpayer dollar spent is borrowed, it is utterly inappropriate for the growing danger that we face.


NTU: Will the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report [released March 3, highlighting redundant functions of government programs] have a catalyzing effect on Congress?


Sen. Kirk: I hope so. We need to stigmatize government spending that wastes taxpayer dollars in small, medium, and large ways. So poetry in zoos is a complete waste of dollars but a small part of government spending; the GAO report deals with much larger amounts. When you are dealing with multiple programs all trying to accomplish the same thing, you get into higher levels of waste and then you get to the big decisions we have to make regarding the whole federal government.


Our problem is not in the thousands, millions, or even billions, it’s numbered in trillions.


NTU: Is WasteBook on Facebook designed to reach a new generation of Americans on the problem of government waste?


Sen. Kirk: It is. Of the 12 million people in Illinois, 5 million are on Facebook. The program is meant to reach out to a much broader audience.


NTU: Do you see the Silver Fleece Award encouraging more whistle-blowing within government?


Sen. Kirk: I hope so. We called it the Silver Fleece Award since I don’t think we can afford a Golden Fleece Award!


My hope is, on Facebook, we can get people suggesting their own items to cut. We are dealing in particularly ridiculous small items right now, but we will ascend in impact and level. People need to wrestle with the harder choices as well as the easy things like eliminating poetry in zoos.


NTU: Do you think we need to be focusing on waste, fraud, and abuse even on the defense and security side?


Sen. Kirk: Yes. I am for no second [alternate] engine for the F-35 [fighter aircraft], no Joint Forces Command; we don’t need a separate Army, Navy, and Air Force commissary system. And as the top Republican on the military construction committee, [I believe] there may be a debate about whether we need [so many] bases in Germany.


In the long run there is a lot of confidence in Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen. So if they say we don’t need it, we don’t need it.


For me, I’ve been a Navy reservist for 20 years, and I think anyone who has served in the military also knows the Department of Defense can waste money too and it shouldn’t be exempt from reform.


NTU: The Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) has been a goal of NTU’s since our founding. Do you think there is momentum in this Congress to get such an amendment through both chambers?


Sen. Kirk: We need to build further momentum. I am for a BBA, but to get both chambers [to pass it], it has to be connected to the politics of the debt limit extension.


Now, remember a constitutional amendment is not approved by the President; it simply emanates from the Congress and goes out to the states. I think a high number of us would be reluctant to vote on any debt limit extension before we first approve a Balanced Budget Amendment. 


NTU: Not much has been said about the line-item veto in recent years. Do you see a movement for hearings occurring in the Senate?


Sen. Kirk: President Obama has called for enhanced rescission. I’m surprised the President has been so muted on that; normally [Presidents] are for increasing their own authority and power. I think this is [a case] where even though the President is of the opposite party we should give him that power. Any exercise in restraint helps the financial future of the country.


NTU: From a fiscal standpoint, what do you think is an underreported piece of legislation that people should be aware of?


Sen. Kirk: The first such bill that I introduced is called the ‘Spending Control Act’ [S. 389]. Basically, it would recreate President Reagan’s Grace Commission with an anti-spending, anti-waste mandate. So it is a bipartisan committee that would not lead to a tax increase.


We’ve had a number of Blue Ribbon Commissions that have reported to the Congress in the past with their reports ignored. The critical additional power for the Spending Control Act…is an ability similar to military base closing commissions, which is the chance to submit a proposal for an up-or-down vote in the House or Senate. This was the key battle that was lost for fiscal conservatives in the last Congress when the Senate voted to strip the President’s [deficit] commission of this power. And in the end the commission rolled ahead by executive order.


As we’ve learned from past base closing commissions, if you get an up-or-down vote without delay in the House or Senate then the correct vote is yes, and you’ll actually get spending reductions.


NTU: Is there anything you’d like to focus on that we have not covered?


Sen. Kirk: I think at this point the number one vote of this Congress is on the debt limit extension. It presents a tremendous opportunity for fiscal conservatives. We’ll see how this goes.


My ideal would be that we lock in statutory caps on how much of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) the government can spend, that we pass the Spending Control Act, that we get the BBA through and out to the states, and that we get the line-item veto put in place. At that point, I think that people looking at the U.S. in general, but primarily employers, will see a downward trend in the deficit that will encourage them.


We will be recovering our spirit from the Greatest Generation. In Illinois, I’ve talked about this – the Greatest Generation didn’t win three battles, it won four, but we don’t think about the fourth. They beat the Japanese, and they beat the Germans, and they beat the Depression. The unreported story is that in 1946 they came back from active duty, and then backed leaders who responsibly grew the economy and eliminated much of the World War II debt. And so we need to recall their spirit even on economic policy and fiscal discipline.


The United States has seen very high public debts before. In the second Washington Administration they faced 200 percent inflation. But through economy and diligence and pro-growth policies we worked off the Revolutionary War debt, the Civil War debt, the World War II debt, and we need to work off this one.

NOTE: The following questions are exclusive to the online edition of this interview.

NTU: You have done very commendable work in the House to prevent Members of Congress who commit crimes in office from receiving pensions. Do you think public opinion of Congress has improved due to the reforms that passed Congress in 2007?


Sen. Kirk: Those reforms were too limited. A Member of Congress who commits a felony should not get a pension. I thought it was reasonable for the Justice Department to come forward and say only convictions related to public integrity felonies [should be grounds for disqualification], of which they have 21. Speaker Pelosi then gutted the measure and only allowed cancelling a pension for four felonies; most were related to bribery.


In their view you should not have your pension suspended if you are convicted of income tax evasion. I think that’s wrong. My goal going forward is to expand the number of felonies that kill your pension from the very limited four, to the full 21.


If you manage to get indicted and convicted by a Federal Grand Jury you don’t deserve a taxpayer-funded pension.


NTU: Assuming there are folks who vote no [on March 3’s two-week continuing budget resolution being debated that day], what do you suppose their political fortunes might be?


Sen. Kirk: It depends. 2012 is an election year, so a larger number of people who support the President are likely to vote. The anti-deficit mood that was so prevalent in my election in 2010 might be more muted as supporters of the President come on the field. I hope not though; I hope we elect a majority of fiscal conservatives to the Congress next time. So that regardless of who the President is, the institution that controls the purse strings is against more spending.


NTU: Had you ever met Senator Proxmire [before his death in 2005]?


Sen. Kirk: I did, after he was retired. He used to use the Library of Congress. It was one of the things he was best known for.


NTU: You are working toward the goal of reducing spending to 2008 levels, certainly not such a radical idea. Do you see a critical mass in the House and Senate to achieve that?


Sen. Kirk: Not critical mass yet. All of these are modest steps, so my hope is that we can at least get that done.


The good news is, if the Congress is cutting [spending], it is one of the only times we’ve seen them do that. At least then, for observers, and especially employers who have been holding back, they see that things are moving in the right direction. It will restore confidence in the American economy and encourage people to make the decision to hire full-time employees. 


NTU: Do you think the release of the House budget resolution [which was expected to offer larger spending reductions and entitlement reforms] might help the process?


Sen. Kirk: Today (March 2) we are debating a four billion-dollar cut, but it’s 0.03 percent of the national debt and 0.3 percent of the annual deficit. We’ve managed to rally around a .03 percent reduction in the national debt, which shows you the size of the problem.


NTU: What can be done to prevent waste like this from happening; perhaps budgetary reform?


Sen. Kirk: I’m in favor of a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution, and a line-item veto. I was also the first House appropriator that came out against earmarks, and I’m glad we’ve buried those, at least for the time being.


We need to cut whole federal programs; even the Administration came up with about $21 billion worth of program cuts. Every little bit helps. My hope is the debt limit extension debate gives us an opportunity for broad systemic, effective anti-spending reforms, that make any future debt limit extension impossible, but we’ll see.


NTU: Based on what you see in WasteBook’s future, are you optimistic it can lead to significant reductions in spending?


Sen. Kirk: I hope so.


Our plan for WasteBook on Facebook is to offer the chance to host cuts proposed by other Senators or Congressmen, to ascend in the price tag, and to gradually present tougher choices to folks. Ultimately, it is about listening to the American people, and we are learning a lot with each vote. 


NTU: Entitlement reform has long been a political landmine. The National Taxpayers Union Foundation recently hosted a forum at CPAC on entitlements, where expert after expert stressed we need to address the problem now. Do you think there’s anything the Senate and House can agree upon that the President would sign into law?


Sen. Kirk: Our job is to rally a bipartisan coalition behind more fiscally responsible policies, which includes entitlement reform. But they would be unable to be enacted without the support of the President. A veto there would be crippling to the financial future of the country. My hope is the President will take that on. There are a lot of people here who would like to vote for that. But could we muster two-thirds majorities over a Presidential veto? I don’t think so. We will need the President to make it happen.