WASHINGTON – After President Barack Obama set up a national online suggestion box in 2009 asking federal workers for new ways to cut the budget, 86,000 ideas came in. Some, inevitably, were a little odd.
One suggested that Transportation Security Administration officers scour airport floors for loose change. Another said Boy Scouts could wash government cars for low pay (and a merit badge). Another: to save on federal weed-control efforts, “Government Goats.”
But many others were more serious, sent in by people who had seen real government waste close up:
Stop the “Use it or Lose it” budgeting policy, which leads agencies to blow taxpayer money at year’s end.
Stop giving paper calendars to workers who already have online calendars.
Stop letting every armed service design its own separate camouflage.
In the end, none of those things happened. Instead, the suggestions became a little-known part of the maddening story of Washington’s budget wars.
Both parties, it turns out, made wide-ranging efforts to survey the public about smart ways to cut the budget. The public responded and then the politicians let most of the good ideas get away.
Obama, for instance, chose 67 suggestions out of those 86,000. But the choices seemed unambitious. The administration often picked ideas that did not require significant change and instead often just applauded what the government was already doing. In a few other cases the administration took an employee’s idea and watered it down so that the savings were less than intended.
At the same time, House Republicans were running their own effort to crowd-source the budget problem. They held online “votes” that picked 36 different line items to cut out of the budget. But then the party got distracted and only two of the 36 became law.
After both the Obama and Republican efforts fizzled, Washington got sequestration: an $85 billion “dumb” cut that slashes the wasteful and the useful in equal measure. Today, the Washington life cycle of these two programs help explain how smart lost and dumb won.
Over time, the president’s website became a Wikipedia of Waste: a first-of-its-kind compilation of thousands of complaints and suggestions bubbling up from thousands of government cubicles across the land.
In addition to the budgets, paper calendars and uniforms, they complained about the mind-bending Paperwork Reduction Act, which requires extra legalese at the end of some forms, often making them one page longer.
“It seems contrary to the reduction of paperwork,” one worker said in 2012.
In all, 16 of those ideas — four per year — have been honored as finalists for a presidential “SAVE Award.” In addition to those, the administration took 48 other ideas and included them in Obama’s annual budget proposals over the past three years.
The Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the SAVE program, could not provide a detailed accounting of what it had saved. But officials were clear that they count it a success. “It’s important as part of a cultural change,” said Danny Werfel, an Office of Management and Budget official, “to make sure that we are focused on every dollar.”
The Washington Post surveyed more than 25 agencies and offices charged with implementing the program’s ideas. It got back details on all but eight of the ideas Obama chose. The review found at least 28 cases where the program seemed to work as promised. A good idea was submitted. Then Obama made it a reality.
Those ideas included reducing mailings of the Federal Register (since workers read it online): That saved $2.9 million. Another one highlighted a head-slapping waste at the Agriculture Department: Its labs were shipping empty boxes and used gloves across the country at next-day air rates. That stopped, with savings of $282,000 per year.
In all, those changes save more than $234 million per year. But other chosen ideas have had a less impressive real-world impact, or none at all. In 20 cases, for instance, the ideas were old ones that agencies had already started doing, for other reasons.
The administration, for example, gave credit to the SAVE program for an effort to save on drug costs at the National Institutes of Health. But that cost-saving effort had started in 2008, under then-President George W. Bush. The White House also credited the SAVE program for an effort to digitize the X-rays of federal prisoners. That effort began in 2004, during Bush’s first term.
In seven other cases, the administration honored ideas but has not yet implemented them.
In one case, an employee at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, won a SAVE Award in 2011 for suggesting a kind of lending library for space tools.
“Everybody (puts) the same special superduper space wrench in the same place. So that the next time, you’re not having to reorder this specialized part,” Obama enthused, recounting the idea in a teleconference with the finalists that year. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of it before! “We should be doing that.”
But they aren’t. NASA decided the original idea was unworkable. Tools used by engineers are huge and complicated. Any new “library” would have to be the size of a warehouse. No go. “Space is at a premium around here,” said Barry Green, a Goddard official.
Instead, NASA is trying a virtual library, a database of tools. But they have not yet found a solution for a crucial problem: How can you tell which tools are in use? “That’s the next step that we’re doing,” Green said.
In four other cases, the Obama administration turned out to be less ambitious than the workers it had asked for help.
For instance, federal lawyer Kevin Korzeniewski suggested that the government stop buying expensive, hard-bound copies of the U.S. legal code. He looked the stuff up online. The books gathered dust. “This is sort of a no-brainer,” Obama said.
But then his administration applied the idea just to Korzeniewski’s small agency within the Treasury Department. Not the whole government. Not even the whole department. The savings — which might have been $182,000 per year government-wide — were $16,000.
In a telephone interview, Korzeniewski was asked: Wasn’t your idea meant to be applied much more broadly?
There was a pause. Korzeniewski was sitting with a government public-relations official.
Then, a whisper: “You can’t speak for other agencies.”
Korzeniewski said he could not speak for other agencies.
The Republican effort was led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. It was a three-step process, to be repeated weekly: The GOP would suggest three choices. The public would choose. Then the House would vote.
“We will . . . put on to the floor, each and every week, bills that cut spending and reduce the federal deficit,” Cantor told reporters in January 2011. After Republicans took control of the House, the program worked as advertised. Six winners. Six votes. One of the chosen ideas was defeated by the full House. The other five passed. Some of the ideas had an obvious partisan bent: cuts to programs in Obama’s signature health care law, cuts to funds for “community organizing” and programs to save energy.
But the voters also chose budget-cutting ideas that Obama had endorsed:
Defund the much-criticized Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation.
Kill a redundant program to support educational TV.
Stop sending abandoned-mine cleanup payments to states that are no longer cleaning up abandoned mines.
They added up: Altogether, the GOP projected that its 36 winning ideas could save the government $253 billion over 10 years. But, as time passed, the House fell behind. The seventh YouCut bill, for instance, got out of committee, but it never got a vote on the House floor. But nine winning YouCut ideas — with a potential savings of $10.7 billion — disappeared without being written up as legislation at all.
Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly was assigned to write legislation that would cut $380 million in loan guarantees to clean-energy companies. But nothing happened with that suggested cut, because Kelly never wrote a bill. He got distracted.
“It was a priority, and it remains an issue of interest. But Mike’s efforts shifted when he chose to focus more on holding the administration accountable with regards to (Operation) Fast and Furious. And then when the Benghazi tragedy occurred, that took the cake,” said Kelly’s spokesman, Tom Qualtere. Now that Congress is in a new session, Qualtere said Kelly might introduce the bill at last.
Or maybe not. “Now there are even more priorities and actions that he’s personally leading — such as the march against the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty,” Qualtere said. “So it’s up in the air.”
In the end, two YouCut ideas did become law — both wrapped up in larger bills. One of those cut money that was intended for high-speed rail lines: The GOP estimated it would save $3.8 billion. The other cut back those payments for abandoned mine lands, saving an estimated $702 million over 10 years.
The rest died when the last Congress ended. Twelve of them had made it to the Democratic-led Senate. The other 24 did not get out of the Republican House.
“The purpose of the YouCut program was to change the culture of Washington,” said Rory Cooper, a spokesman for Cantor. “Today, as is evident to anyone paying attention, that culture has been changed.”
Today, YouCut appears to be dead. No new votes have been held in the current Congress. Cantor’s representatives did not respond to questions about the program’s status this week.
And the YouCut website still offers viewers a vote from the last Congress. One choice would have cut contributions to the United Nations. One would end purchases of high-end chairs for federal offices. And one would terminate Environmental Protection Agency grants for community organizing. Together, the site says, they might have saved the country $15 billion.