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Citizens ‘hosed’ by government’s mess

It seems our federal government can’t find its assets with both hands.

At least that’s what a new audit says. They know they have a lot of stuff, but don’t exactly know where it is. And you thought the WMDs were hard to find.

In fact, if our government was a Fortune 500 company, Congress would be jailed for shagging its shareholders (you and me).



I was over at a pal’s house Sunday playing a little poker and noticed a thick document titled, “2004 Financial Report of the United States Government,” which tells you something about the company I keep. My pal enjoys numbers, and his idea of a bedtime story is a federal budget.

The first thing you notice about the federal government’s finances is that they are a complete mess. According to the report, we are $7.4 trillion in the hole, which shows that you really can dig a hole from Grass Valley all the way to China. Broken down, that means every man, woman and child in America would need to kick in $25,000 just to bring us even. And if we factor in the gap between promised and funded Social Security and Medicare benefits, veterans’ health care, and a range of other unfunded commitments and contingencies, the current burden for every American rises to about $145,000 per person, or about $350,000 per full-time worker.




“Until the problems discussed in our audit report are adequately addressed, they will continue to present a number of adverse implications for the federal government and the taxpayers,” wrote the Government Accountability Office chief David Walker.

For starters, I think government accountability is an oxymoron. Walker has got to have one of the easiest gigs in the land.

“How’s the government accountability going, chief?”

“OK,” says the chief. “We’re only $7.4 trillion away from where we need to be, but I’ve got eight weeks of vacation accrued.”

In one of the greatest understatements ever uttered, Walker urged more fiscal responsibility. He called Medicare’s new prescription drug benefit “one of the largest unfunded commitments ever undertaken by the federal government” and noted that the program will cost $8.1 trillion over the next 75 years.

He also criticized the growing defense budget. “We should not assume that all defense and homeland security expenditures are both necessary and prudent,” he wrote.

He probably means expenditures such as the $200,000 portrait of George C. Scott in the Pentagon restroom.

The opening page of the 2004 Financial Report is a real hoot. “I am pleased to present the fiscal year 2004 Financial Report of the United States Government,” writes Treasury Secretary John W. Snow.

How can a guy who is supposed to be holding our money be “pleased” to report a $7.4 trillion problem? If I opened my budget presentation to my bosses with a remark like that, they’d kick my yoga-taking fanny out the door.

He concludes his introduction by saying he is also “pleased with the progress we have made this year …”

It seems government measures progress far differently than the rest of the world.

There’s a disclaimer in the report from the auditors who want to make sure we know that they take no responsibility for the mess they found. “Because of the federal government’s inability to demonstrate the reliability of significant portions of the U.S. government’s accompanying consolidated financial statements for the fiscal years 2004 and 2003, principally resulting from material deficiencies, and other limitations on the scope of our work, described in this report, we are unable to, and do not, express an opinion on such financial statements.”

In other words, Enron looks like a well-oiled machine compared to the federal government.

As to the government assets … well … the report indicates that our government really doesn’t know where they all are. That’s especially true with the Department of Defense.

Under the heading of “Material Deficiencies,” the report notes that “property, plant, and equipment, primarily held by DOD” were not satisfactorily accounted for.

Uh-oh. “Has anybody seen that tank anywhere? How about the rockets? I can’t remember where I left the darned rockets.”

And NASA isn’t much better when it comes to keeping track of its assets, which is why we have so many satellites floating in space for no particular purpose.

It’s particularly important to point out these deficiencies as we all prepare our federal taxes. Especially since the financial report indicates that our government can’t keep track of those, either. “Due to errors and delays in recording activity in taxpayer accounts,” reads the report, “taxpayers were not always credited for payments made on their taxes owed, which could result in undue taxpayer burden.”

Either way, we’re hosed. If they do get our tax money, they’ll buy something they don’t need and forget where they put it. If they don’t get our tax money, chances are they’ll lock us away somewhere and lose the key.

ooo

Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears each Tuesday.


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