A mammoth, sprawling, uncontrollable, federal government was never the vision or intent of the founding fathers.  Organizations have a propensity to grow to a point of diminishing returns; it ceases to be efficient, effective, and/or no longer performs the functions for which it was created.  At that point, a large organization will tend to look inward and become self-perpetuating rather than value-added. 

January 22, 2022

Special edition

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If our government is to be able to make the much needed course correction, General Covault’s program should be implimenmted without delay.

SPENDING AND DEBT REFORM

By: Marvin L. Covault, Lt Gen US Army, retired

January 22, 2022

1. A mammoth, sprawling, uncontrollable, federal government was never the vision or intent of the founding fathers.  Organizations have a propensity to grow to a point of diminishing returns; it ceases to be efficient, effective, and/or no longer performs the functions for which it was created.  At that point, a large organization will tend to look inward and become self-perpetuating rather than value-added. 

2. Some or all of that could apply today to the Departments in the Executive Branch of the federal government. This results in two major problems that must get fixed.  

First, a too-large organization is very expensive to maintain.  A more effective and efficient Executive Branch will be much smaller and less expensive. Every 1% reduction in end-strength equals about a $1.5 billion saving in annual salaries plus billions of dollars more in long-term retirement pay and benefits.

Second, and more importantly, the annual U.S. budget boils up out of this massive organization. Every government-funded program is maintained and sustained inside these bureaucracies.  These programs are this organization’s product.  General Motor’s product is vehicles; the Executive Branch’s product is taxpayer-supported programs.  The question is, what is the value added of those programs?  An in-depth review will undoubtedly find programs that have existed for decades, their original purpose no longer relevant, programs that sounded good at their inception but have failed in execution, programs to solve a problem that should have been the purview of state or local officials, programs initiated to solve a short-term problem but live on forever.  The list is long.  President Reagan summed up the problem with this statement, “Government is like a baby, an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.”

3. Before we launch into how to fix spending, a word about the national debt.  The out-of-control spending and debt increase is a relatively new problem. The Obama/Biden administration swamped us with more debt than all of the 43 previous presidents combined.  And now increasing debt annually has become the norm.  The Congressional Budget Office has been telling us for several years that annual debt increases are “not sustainable”, aka, there will be a day of reckoning and it will be ugly.   

It is difficult to get our minds around the almost $29 trillion debt.  If you had stood on a street corner in 1960 handing out dollar bills, one dollar per second, you would just about now finish giving away the first billion dollars. Your federal government spends a billion dollars about every 8 hours, 24/7.  You would be on that street corner for 62,000 years to hand out the first $1 trillion. If you were paying off the current debt at one dollar per second, it would take you 1.8 million years.  Unsustainable. We have to do something about spending and we have to change the way we think about debt.   

4. A frontal assault on the Executive Branch could result in the first major attempt at reducing annual federal spending by hundreds of billions of dollars; something the current Executive Branch and Congress collectively are incapable of doing.  

The federal government can be fixed but it will take strong leadership, attention to detail and, if done properly, at least six months of hard work.  The current administration is incapable of taking on this project. But fortunately, the Biden administration will eventually go away and when that happens it provides an opportunity for the Republican party and the future of our country.  

5. There was a time when the Republican Party stood for smaller government, states’ rights, strong defense, strict interpretation of the Constitution, AND FISCAL CONSERVATISM.  Politicians have moved away from being fiscally responsible. Just as was the case in 2016, the American people are looking for someone to lead us away from growing governmental control, cultural entitlement, and out-of-control government spending aka uncontrolled taxation. 

Reducing the size, reach, budget, and influence of the sprawling Executive Branch should become a major plank in every Republican congressional campaign this year leading on to the 2024 presidential election. Here is what needs to be accomplished now through June 2025 in five phases. 

6. Phase 1, Planning and Message Proliferation. Now through November 2024.

a.) Of the tens of thousands of Rip’s subscribers who are reading this, some of you know and can communicate with the Republican candidates for House and Senate seats this year.  Those of you who believe the following program is necessary, encourage your candidate to make Spending and Debt Reform a priority in their campaign. If this happens, Spending and Debt Reform awareness will be set up across the nation for the 2024 presidential campaign.  

b.) There are Republican movers-and-shakers who have national influence and are frequently asked by the media to comment on policy and issues; three that come to mind are former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Governor Mike Huckabee, and former presidential Special Advisor Karl Rove.  Additionally, we can easily begin to make a list of potential 2024 presidential/vice presential candidates; for example, Senator Tom Cotton, Governor Ron DeSantis, former Governor Nikki Haley, President Trump, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Lindsey Graham, Governor Kristi Noem. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and other influential Republican stalwarts also need to be on the list.  The point here is that those of you who know and can communicate with those on the list should have a serious discussion with them about making Spending and Debt Reform an important addition to their political position from this date on through the 2024 election. 

Comment on the above paragraph:  This is by no means a complete list but I cannot recall a time when the Republican Party had such a strong bench of spokespersons and potential presidential/vice-presidential candidates.  The challenge is to get them focused on Spending and Debt Reform as a critical national issue before it is too late for this country.   

7. Phase 2, 118th Congress, January 2023-2025.  When the 118th Congress convenes, the newcomers should inculcate Spending and Debt Reform into daily Capitol Hill dialogue and become an issue for every piece of legislation. 

8. Phase 3, The 2024 Presidential Campaign.  All primary-election Republication candidates should agree that Spending and Debt Reform is a critical issue facing the nation and if elected will make it a priority to execute the reform process. 

During the general-election campaign, the Republican presidential candidate will make it clear that the priority for his/her vice president will be to lead Spending and Debt Reform execution. 

9. Phase 4, Nominate Executive Branch Leaders, November 2024 – January 2025. The President/Vice President-elect should concentrate their selection process on principals and their deputies who understand organizations, who have successfully led large complex organizations, and who will lead the effort to re-think their mission and to restructure their organization to most effectively and efficiently achieve their mission. 

10. Phase 5, Spending and Debt Reform Execution, January 2025-June 2025.  This will be a difficult process because we are talking about change, massive change.  We must recognize that for any large organization, especially one as large as the Executive Branch, change is hard. Fear of the unknown is a powerful human force, especially in government with an entrenched, layered bureaucracy that is stiff, stifling, and, in many respects, self-serving.

The newly elected Vice President will provide hands-on leadership from start to finish with periodic in-progress reviews to the American people. 

How does all this get accomplished? It is a long and tedious process, even explaining it is a long, tedious read, but there are no viable shortcuts to re-thinking, re-designing, and re-structuring large organizations and making them be all they can/should be.  

First, the vice president should set up a senior Spending and Debt Reform Task Force consisting of the deputies of all the departments, agencies, and commissions. They will be the change agents and become the junkyard dogs of Washington.   

Second, define the end state and end date for the campaign. For example, the VP might say, “Over the next six months our task force will look inside every organizational element of the Executive Branch.  We will assess their mission (is it relevant today), their structure (too many or too few people), layering (is it OK or dysfunctional), can the organization integrate (communicate) vertically and horizontally efficiently and effectively on a day-to-day basis? Is the organization as a whole agile (able to deal with change as a matter of course) and is there overall value-added for the government and especially for the American people?”

Third, organization charts: The process begins in every named organization by putting together a very detailed organization chart. That’s the visual for the task force and it provides an immediate sense of the size, complexity, and layering.  Big government is layer after layer after layer; some of which produce nothing; they exist just to oversee what is being produced at the layers below.  Why the organization chart?  Because it allows the task force to begin the analysis and restructure at the bottom of the organization. One cannot reorganize and restructure top-down; to be successful it must be bottom-up.  

Using the Department of Agriculture as an example, 65 different organizational elements come under the headings of “departments, agencies, councils, institutes, programs, foundations, services, authorities, offices of, boards and facilities.” Inside them are departments, directorates, branches, sections, cells, and individual elements.  Every one of those becomes a “box” in the organization chart.  Each organizational box must list the name of the element, number of employees, and the grade of the leader, GS 10, 12, whatever.

Within the Department of Agriculture, for example, the Deputy Secretary, part of the VP’s senior task force, will form his/her own internal departmental task force. The Department Task Force’s first action will be to send out an internal memo to the leaders of every “box” to submit in one week a no-more-than-two-page report to the Deputy Secretary.  The report format should include, as a minimum:

a.)  A one or two-sentence mission statement that describes what it is that element collectively does.  (for example: responsible for writing, executing, and enforcing Department Regulation 135, Beef Export Program, and reporting results quarterly to ………)

During the following week, the Department Task Force’s job is to ask itself: do we need Dept Reg 135 any longer?  If so, could this be done with fewer people?  Could the same number of employees also be responsible for Dept Reg 246, Pork Export Program? Do we need the report quarterly? And most importantly, what is the value-added to the overall Department’s mission. 

There are probably tens of thousands of worthless reports written every year by an entrenched bureaucratic mass that lives on forever sucking up tax dollars, stifling initiative, and being a roadblock to progress.

b.) The report should describe the grade structure of all the employees in the box.

Task Force will look at the grade structure; is it commensurate with the degree of complexity of the mission? Could two or more similar “boxes” be combined, perhaps scaled-down and led by this same leader (a span of control issue)? Is the leader a “working leader” or just grading the papers of his/her subordinates and passing them up the chain?

c.) Describe a typical work week; number of meetings, amount of travel, etc.   

This can reveal a lot about an organizational element and its leader.  Many meetings are just to fill up time, or are a daily social coffee clutch, or make the person in charge feel like he/she is actually “leading”.  Many are a colossal waste of time. If employees have time to attend too many meetings, they probably are not very busy to begin with.  Is the travel critical to success, nice to have, or perhaps just to fill up the workweek? Travel is very expensive. 

d.) What regulations guide your work?  

After reviewing the answers to the other questions, it may become apparent that these regulations are no longer necessary.  Another piece in getting the big organizational picture. 

e.) Product.  A list, in single sentences, of major accomplishments in the past 12 months

The task force will then determine if the accomplishments are in line with the mission or are just doing “busy work”?

f.) A short statement of value-added to the department of…..(agriculture).  That is, “Without us, the Department would not/could not do the following……….”

The Task Force review of the input is all about policy, practices, process, grade structure commensurate with overall responsibility, span of control, layering, and value-added determination.  When the VP randomly attends Departmental Task Force sessions, he/she will be grading their work and progress; are they tough enough, too tough, thorough enough, on the right track, or being overly protective of the status quo?  The VP will also be able to pick up strong points and pass them along to other Departments as best practices.  

Once the task force has worked its way up from the bottom, looking at every element, their individual mission, and value added, then and only then will they be capable of looking back and seeing how many subordinate elements are off track, irrelevant, unnecessary or even counterproductive.  They will then be capable of restructuring, re-aligning, re-tasking, reorganizing the subordinate elements to create an organization that is more focused, aligned, responsive, innovative, agile, and rid of pockets of resistance

What must be emphasized here is the importance of the bottom-up review process.  As the task force works up from layer to layer on the organization chart, they will come to some conclusions about value added at each level. Having reached the top of the org chart it is possible the Vice President’s senior task force could conclude that an entire department’s continued existence should be questioned.  A prime example is the Department of Education.  Education in America is a national disgrace and not getting better despite the hundreds of billions of tax dollars expended by the department since its inception 40 years ago.

This process may look tedious and time-consuming because it is.  But unless you begin at the bottom and unless you include every element, you will never achieve an acceptable level of success. 

11. CONCLUSIONS:  

a.) The task forces must be especially mindful of the phrase “we provide oversight.”  That is a red flashing light that an organization does not, in and of itself, produce anything of value. They simply exist to grade papers, expand their purview, inhibit progress and expend tax dollars.  As President Reagan reminded us, “The most terrifying words in the English language are, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

b.) During the process, it is important to not lose sight of the two-fold objectives.  First, the objective is NOT to reach some specific lower number of federal employees.  The objective is to rid the government of “boxes” in the organization charts that have no “value added”, they just exist because they have always been there.  The end state is an organization that is leaner, more focused, more efficient, more effective, and agile.

c.) Why do all of this work?  Two reasons: 

1) The most common attempts at downsizing, in my experience used numerous times over the past decades, have been to declare a hiring freeze or order an across-the-board xx% personnel cut, neither of which make any sense nor achieves any positive results.  

2) What I have described above has never been done before.  We have just allowed the Executive Branch to grow without ever undertaking a necessary pruning process. 

d.) When completed, many positions (perhaps tens of thousands of them) will be eliminated. It will then take a couple years of shuffling the deck by the Office of Personnel Management to get folks reassigned or retired, but it is within the art of the possible and worth the effort.  

e.) That budget is the sum of what all of the departments, agencies, councils, institutes, programs, foundations, services, authorities, offices of, boards, and facilities need to accomplish their mission.  When, perhaps tens of thousands of actions, programs, and policies are eliminated because they are outdated, unnecessary, and/or redundant, the budget requirement can be downsized by billions of dollars. 

f.) There is also a states’ right issues in all of this.  As the federal government grows a natural outcome is that they over-reach into areas that are better and more effectively handled at the local and state level.  Federal over-reach tends to result in a one-size-fits-all approach to problem-solving and it is usually ineffective and inefficient.  

g.) President Reagan got it right when he said:

ü “Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them.” 

ü “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” 

ü “Government always finds a need for whatever money it gets.”

12. BOTTOM LINE:  Getting spending and hence debt under control will resonate with the American people a lot more than the tax-and-spend economic baseline of the Obama and Biden administrations.  This is a necessary, positive endeavor the Republican Party needs to embrace.  

The vice president-led Spending and Budget Reform Task Force accomplishments will send a powerful message to Congress.  Congress has become increasingly irresponsible overspending and debt.  They need a wake-up call and if the Republican Party will campaign and win 2022/2024 with the Spending and Debt Reform message, the Congress will change.

Marvin L. Covault, Lt Gen US Army, retired, is the author of VISION TO EXECUTION, a book for leaders, a columnist for THE PILOT, a national award-winning local newspaper in Southern Pines, NC, and the author of a blog, WeThePeopleSpeaking.com. 

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If you do not take an interest 
in the affairs of your government, 
then you are doomed to live under 
the rule of fools.
Plato
 

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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