Letter from Ryan Alexander

Weekly WastebasketLetter from Ryan AlexanderReflections of a Budget Watchdog

Budget & Tax,  | Weekly Wastebasket
Dec 20, 2019  | 10 min read | Print Article

The Wastebasket is usually unsigned, but today is an exception. This is the last wastebasket of the year, of the decade, and of my 13 year tenure as president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

It’s hard to believe just how much has happened. In my 13 years at TCS, the country has seen three presidents, four Speakers of the House (one of whom served twice), three senate majority leaders, the housing and financial crises, and both the largest recession since the Great Depression and the longest continuous peacetime economic expansion in our history. In that time, the federal government has spent almost $47 trillion and taken in roughly $36.5 trillion. The numbers are so large they feel impossibly abstract, but let’s write them out to remind ourselves what they look like: $47 trillion = $47,000,000,000,000. Twelve zeros. That is a staggering amount of money. The gross national debt held by the public is now in excess of $23 trillion, which is more than 100 percent of GDP.  Twitter was started in 2006, the same year I came on board at TCS.

In the last two years alone, Congress has passed both the largest spending and the largest single tax cut legislation in history. And this week, in addition to contemplating the recently issued articles of impeachment, lawmakers passed a $1.4 trillion spending deal, the annual defense policy bill, and retroactively extended a passel of special interest tax breaks worth more than $400 billion in lost revenue of the next 10 years.

So what’s a budget watchdog to do?

The short answer is keep working. Look for new friends, make new enemies if necessary, and fight, fight, fight to protect taxpayers.

When I look back at some of our accomplishments, all of them have one thing in common: unglamorous, careful, rigorous work. Some victories came when we least expected it, some came with drama, and more than a few came while no one was paying attention. But every one of them was preceded by lots of work.

When I first started as president, I attended a coalition meeting of organizations that opposed subsidies to corn ethanol. It was a small group – maybe 10 organizations were represented. A pollster presented findings about public support for corn ethanol, including the phrase I remember most: “ethanol might be more popular than Santa.” The Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC), the industry’s largest (but not only) subsidy, grew from $3.4 billion to $21 billion between 2006 and 2010.  At the same time, TCS and others worked to grow the coalition opposing that policy. We produced detailed analysis. We persuaded organizations to change their positions by presenting facts. We mobilized coalition members. There were moments of drama in the summer of 2011 when the Senate voted to eliminate VEETC and the House failed to take up the issue.  And at the end of that year, it quietly expired.

In other cases, victory came with more drama. After TCS worked for six years documenting the taxpayer losses and methane wasted on public lands, lawmakers tried to repeal the rule designed to address those losses by taking advantage of a change in power in the White House and the Congressional Review Act – a mechanism that allows for instant repeal of certain recently enacted regulations with a mere majority vote in the Senate. With Vice President Pence waiting in the wings to break a tie vote, the late Senator John McCain, a long-time TCS ally, voted to protect the rule, leaving the Vice President with nothing to do but avoid questions from the press.

Some of our work to reveal and stop corruption was splashy from the beginning – from sweetheart contracts like the Boeing tanker lease, to shady land deals (think former Representative Rick Renzi), to other problematic but perhaps not criminal practices like requiring military bases in Germany to power themselves only with coal from Pennsylvania, or the earmark for a road in Florida that was dropped into a bill by a congressman from Alaska. Stripping a $50 billion nuclear loan guarantee from the 2007 stimulus bill led to TCS being listed as a winner in the summary of that legislative fight. But while that work made headlines, it all started with reading legislative text, budget justification documents, GAO reports, and many other documents – from local land records to decades old copies of the Congressional Record.

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Part of searching for the truth is understanding that you can’t predict what you will find. And part of pushing for change is knowing that strategies and tactics will evolve to meet the times. Thirteen years ago, our investigations were amplified by strong partnerships with investigative journalists in print, broadcast, and cable television. Ten years ago, we were a primary source for the then-emerging “fact checking press.” We still do that work, but the landscape has changed and so has our work: I have traveled (as has most of the TCS program staff) to speak or testify in parts of the country for whom the phrase “the house” doesn’t immediately call to mind Congress; we push our research out directly to individuals and organizations; we run ads when it makes sense. But no matter what, we still start with primary source, documents, and numbers.

Which leads me back to this week’s spending deal. At the beginning of the decade, “Tea Party” lawmakers demanded $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next ten years. Instead, they came up with nothing, setting spending limits for a decade to come. (Our team put together a roadmap for them to achieve the deficit-reduction target, by the way.) But after the first year, Congress could not bring itself to adhere to those limits and raised them in a rare repeat show of bipartisanship.  Republicans, while in the minority, talked a lot about fiscal responsibility and restraint; once they gained power, however, they spent like drunken sailors and enacted giant deficit-financed tax cuts. Democrats, now that they have regained one chamber of Congress, readily agreed to big spending increases for both defense and non-defense discretionary spending. Both parties continue the cynical and inefficient cycle of extending temporary tax breaks over and over again.

The sliver of good news in this spending bill is that there appears to be compromise in some unexpected areas: allowing funding for research on gun violence, for example, a long-time priority for Democrats that Republicans traditionally fought tooth and nail. But, there are still plenty of budget tricks and sleight of hand – keeping border spending stable while – wink, wink – not prohibiting the president from moving funds from other accounts to border spending, but then prohibiting employees who move funds from being paid, for example.

Fighting for taxpayers is often derided as an anti-government strategy that presumes the government can’t work, that taxpayer needs are greater than other needs – be it improving national security, reducing childhood poverty, addressing climate change, or enforcing our nation’s laws. But if we don’t demand excellence from our government, we’ll never get it. If we don’t watch what policymakers do closely, single-minded special interests will prevail at the expense of everyday Americans. If we don’t try to work across the political spectrum, divisions will only get wider.

Our work at Taxpayers for Common Sense revolves around a few key values and beliefs – that no one wants to see their money wasted, that budget decisions should reflect national priorities, not political power, and that as taxpayers we have a right, even a duty, to demand excellence. These values are just as important today as they were in 1995 when we were launched. I look forward to supporting TCS as it enters its second quarter century.

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