Sen. Mark Warner is best known at the moment for being one of the “gang of six” — the three Democrats and three Republicans who have been trying to come up with a bipartisan deficit reduction plan in the Senate. But long before the Virginia Democrat helped start the group, he was known as a fiscally conservative governor who received high marks for turning the state deficit that he inherited into a surplus.
Warner once told me that he was able to make budget changes in the state because Virginians saw his efforts as serious attempts to make the government less costly. Some changes, such as greatly reducing hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles and requiring that many transactions be conducted online, got big headlines when they forced people to deal differently with the DMV.
But voters respected the cuts when it became clear that they could still do what they needed and that the reductions were having the desired effect on the state’s bottom line. It also set the stage for less popular changes, such as revenue increases, because there was a general recognition that the cuts had gone far enough.
As the debate in Washington, D.C., on a long-term federal deficit reduction plan continues to stall, the strategy that Warner used as governor — put in place cost savings that change how government does its work, rather than what it does — may be one of the best, and perhaps only, options available to Congress and the White House this year.
This will disappoint some who want to immediately enact a big fix — a combination of spending and revenue changes needed to eliminate the deficit. In particular, tea partyers in the House and Senate are likely to criticize Warner’s strategy as a trifling effort that kicks the budget can down the road and isn’t worth the time or energy needed to do it.
First, that’s not necessarily true; significant savings (although not enough to eliminate the deficit) can be adopted this way. And given the lack of support for the sweeping budget plans that have already been proposed, this may well be the only option that can get done this year.
If you doubt that’s true, think about what has been put on the table so far. The plan that the Bowles-Simpson debt reduction commission came up with last December has all but been forgotten. Neither chamber of Congress has been able to produce a comprehensive budget that is anything other than symbolic. There has been tepid interest in President Barack Obama’s initial budget request, and the deficit reduction outline that the White House announced last month hasn’t gained any traction. The gang of six has yet to come up with anything, and there is a great deal of uncertainty about how many others will support it even if it does. And there are tremendous uncertainties about whether the budget talks begun last week by Vice President Joseph Biden will succeed.
That’s why it makes sense to think of smaller but still significant alternatives such as the strategy that Warner used when he was governor. It also makes sense because polls show Americans are still focused on cutting waste, fraud and abuse, and they won’t support a broader strategy until they’re convinced that has been done. Polls show convincingly and consistently that the typical American is willing to cut foreign aid spending but otherwise wants government that costs less, not less government.
If the Warner strategy were applied at the federal level, every agency that gets an appropriation would be required to reduce its spending by some percentage in 2012. An agency couldn’t propose the equivalent of closing the Washington Monument to the public, but like the Virginia DMV, it could reduce the hours or days it’s open. This would apply to both domestic and military agencies.
Mandatory programs wouldn’t be trimmed by cutting benefits or changing eligibility rules because there’s absolutely no support for making those types of massive changes in these programs. Agencies that manage these programs would instead cut spending by reducing overpayments to providers, dealing with fraud, stopping benefits to those who don’t qualify and finding other similar savings.
Revenues could also be included in this effort. The goal would be for the IRS to collect more money from those who owe taxes under current law but are evading the rules in some way.
Just like the changes made at the Virginia DMV, this process will not be painless. But as Warner demonstrated, they can have a material effect on both the government’s bottom line and, at least as important, on the politics of deficit reduction. If waste, fraud and abuse can be eliminated or minimized as a budget cause célèbre, the big fixes that many are seeking will become more likely. And, in the meantime, the deficit will be substantially lower than it otherwise would be.
Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”