Big government spending dates to the Father of Our Country

There’s good news and bad news from those fun-loving do-gooders over at Citizens Against Government Waste. CAGW is the nonpartisan, nonprofit group that ferrets out squandered government money in the form of earmarks, then publishes its findings in its Congressional Pig Book.

This year’s news: Earmarks have plummeted. The number has dropped by 98.3 percent, from 9,129 in fiscal year 2010 to 152 in FY 2012. That’s from $16.5 billion to $3.3 billion. That’s good.

Now for the bad news. Remember when Congress agreed to make the 2012 appropriations bill “earmark-free”? Yeah, about that ...

They’re still squeezing out earmarks. Not only that, too often the earmarks duplicate funding for defense, agriculture, energy, transportation, homeland security and housing projects that already had tons of money set aside.

Sometimes the money-fumbling gets even worse. A few years ago, according to a small section of the Treasury Department’s Financial Report of the United States Government of 2003, the government couldn’t account for how it spent $24.5 billion. That’s with a “b.” Apparently it was spent – it’s just that nobody knows for what.

Once I lost a $20 bill and I felt like an absent-minded idiot. What would you feel like if you lost almost $25 billion? You’d feel like a bureaucrat, that’s what.

There are folks out there who think we’re not giving the government enough money, but it looks like the bigger problem is that too many people we send to Washington do a rotten job of keeping track of the money they get.

I’ve often wondered – especially when each Fourth of July approaches – whether the Founding Fathers had that kind of problem. Did they ever blow an excessive amount of money on powdered wigs? Did they sink a whole lot of defense funding into some sort of weird musket prototype?

I don’t have to wonder anymore. Not since I came across a book called George Washington’s Expense Account. It’s by Marvin Kitman, who made his career mainly as a media critic but back in the 1970s took a tongue-in-cheek look at one of the most thoroughly annotated documents of the Revolutionary War.

Picture it: It’s June 1775, and Washington has just agreed to command the Continental Army. A major general’s salary at that time was a princely $166 a month, so the Continental Congress was prepared to offer him much more. He refused. Instead, Washington wrote this letter:

“Sir, I beg leave to assure the Congress that as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to have accepted this arduous employment, I do not wish to make any profit from it. I will keep an exact account of my expenses. Those I doubt not they will discharge, and that is all I desire.”

What a guy, right? Work for no pay and take one for the team, right? He would account for every dime he spent and be reimbursed for it. I mean, how many “expenses” could one man rack up?

Quite a lot, actually. In 1780 dollars, it came to a staggering $449,261.51. The Continental Congress signed off on all of it, barely batting a bureaucratic eye. Factor in inflation and such, and in today’s money, historians estimate Washington’s expenses from June 1775 to June 1783 at more than $4 million.

That paid for plenty of beef, mutton, fowl, pork, fresh vegetables, milk and miscellaneous savories not only for daily meals but for the numerous times he entertained guests. And, of course, there was the booze. Washington – and presumably the generals he hung out with – loved wine, particularly Madeira. From September 1775 to March 1776, Washington’s alcohol tab alone exceeded $6,000. By the end of the war, Washington is said to have gained 30 pounds.

Then there were the horses and the carriages and the custom leather goods. Tablecloths, bed linens, silk thread – you get the idea.

Now, to be fair, the Father of Our Country (or as Kitman called him, “the “father of modern expense account writing”) didn’t exactly stroll among starving soldiers while munching on roasted turkey legs. Military supply lines were woefully inadequate, leaving ample supplies in Boston and Newport, R.I., to rot. He fought tooth and nail to get the equipment his men needed, but too often to no avail.

In a letter to Maj. Gen. John Armstrong, Washington wrote: “The Army, as usual, are without Pay; and a great part of the Soldiery without Shirts; and tho’ the patience of them is equally thread bear, the States seem perfectly indifferent to their cries.”

Still, when you have thousands of soldiers wintering at Valley Forge who didn’t always have food, shoes or blankets, I don’t think I would have – as Washington did – hired a band to play for his birthday.

So from those humble overspending beginnings, America has come to this: a debt now exceeding (as I write this) $15.8 trillion.

It goes up between $40,000 and $50,000 each second, depending on which debt clock you look at – that’s a Web gizmo that shows you, in real time, how much money the government is spending. And there are a lot of them on the Internet. Google “debt clock,” click on one of the links and just let the despair wash over you.

Republican Rep. Tom Reed of New York introduced a resolution last year calling for the installation of a running debt clock in the House chamber, as a “visual gesture” reminding members to reduce spending. As far as I know, the clock hasn’t been erected. Apparently House members haven’t yet decided whether to waste money on a device that would remind them not to waste money.

Where’s George Washington when you need him? He would’ve gotten the funding for that in no time.

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