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$890,000 on nothingTell North Platte what you think

“U.S. government spends $890,000 on nothing” – it sounds like a bad joke, but it’s no laughing matter.

The Washington Post recently reported, “This year, the government will spend at least $890,000 on service fees for bank accounts that have nothing in them. At last count, Uncle Sam has 13,712 such accounts, each with a balance of zero.”

The American people are no strangers to reports of excessive government waste, from robotic squirrel research to Moroccan pottery classes.

This latest example, however, comes at a particularly frustrating moment as thousands of Americans are stuck waiting for hours in airport terminals with delayed flights – the result of the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to furlough thousands of air traffic controllers.

Federal law, known as sequestration, requires the government to reduce overall spending by 5-percent in each agency, totaling $85 billion for the remainder of the fiscal year. While the $890,000 currently spent on unused bank accounts may seem like a drop in the bucket, it nonetheless proves there is plenty of fat to trim without directly impacting essential government services and jobs.

Like many Nebraskans, I remain concerned about the federal government’s failure to effectively target these required – and necessary – budget cuts.

Of particular concern is the FAA’s complete mismanagement of the cost reductions, which has resulted in unnecessary travel delays across the nation.

Since 1996, the FAA’s operations budget has grown by an astounding 109 percent, from $4.6 billion to $9.7 billion; a mere 5-percent budget cut would simply return the FAA to 2010 funding levels.

Despite two years to prepare for budget reductions, the FAA chose to provide Congress and the airline industry less than a week’s notice regarding its plans to furlough its workforce, showing complete disregard for the travelling public.

The FAA has insisted on targeting air traffic controllers rather than solely focusing on lower-priority personnel to ensure “morale.”

The FAA has 47,000 employees, of which 15,500 are air traffic controllers.

While I appreciate the hard work of many federal workers, air traffic controllers should be the last ones on the FAA’s budgetary chopping block.

Rather than selectively ratcheting up the pain of budget cuts on American citizens with long delays, the FAA should instead focus on cutting its $500 million in spending on consultants, or the $325 million spent on supplies and travel.

For months, the administration has argued that it lacks flexibility to target required budget cuts in a smart, responsible manner that mitigates the impact on the public.

To that end, I have cosponsored several legislative efforts to provide the administration with tools to ensure essential federal employees continue to provide vital services such as control tower operations.

Most recently, I cosponsored the Essential Services Act, which would simply require each federal government agency head to identify and exempt essential employees from any furlough policies, using the same standards created by multiple administrations during government shutdown scenarios.

Unfortunately, the president and my Democrat colleagues continue to oppose any measures to both achieve needed savings (without tax hikes) and preserve important government functions.

Notably, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta recently testified at a Senate hearing that he does, in fact, have discretion to prioritize spending cuts.

If true, then it appears the FAA is more interested in scoring political points rather than cutting its $2.7 billion in non-personnel operations costs.

I am very disappointed in Administrator Huerta’s lack of forthrightness with Congress. When asked at the same hearing about the FAA’s possible furlough strategy, Huerta provided only general statements.

Just hours later, FAA officials provided detailed furlough plans to airlines – a disturbing move to hide the ball from lawmakers, who were left without the opportunity to mitigate the impact of extensive furloughs.

I stand ready to work with the president and any of my colleagues committed to making budget cuts in a smart and efficient manner that preserves essential government services – and my record proves it.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 4/26/2013
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