ALLENWOOD — WASHINGTON — After President Barack Obama set up a national online suggestion box in 2009 asking federal workers for new ways to cut the budget, 86,000 ideas came in. Some, inevitably, were a little odd.
One suggested that Transportation Security Administration officers scour airport floors for loose change. Another said Boy Scouts could wash government cars for low pay (and a merit badge). Another: to save on federal weed-control efforts,"Government Goats."
But many others were more serious, sent in by people who had seen real government waste close up:
— Stop the "Use it or Lose it" budgeting policy, which leads agencies to blow taxpayer money at year's end.
— Stop giving paper calendars to workers who already have online calendars.
— Stop letting every armed service design its own separate camouflage.
In the end, none of those things happened. Instead, those suggestions became a little-known part of the maddening story of Washington's budget wars.
Both parties, it turns out, made wide-ranging efforts to survey the public about smart ways to cut the budget. The public responded and then the politicians let most of the good ideas get away.
Obama, for instance, chose 67 suggestions out of those 86,000. But the choices seemed unambitious. The administration often picked ideas that didn't require significant change and instead often just applauded what the government was already doing.
In a few other cases the administration took an employee's idea and watered it down so that the saving were less than intended.
At the same time, House Republicans were running their own effort to crowd-source the budget problem. They held online "votes" that picked 36 different line items to cut out of the budget. But then the party got distracted and only two of the 36 became law.
After both the Obama and Republican efforts fizzled, Washington got sequestration: an $85 billion "dumb" cut that slashes the wasteful and the useful in equal measure. Today, the Washington life cycle of these two programs help explain how smart lost and dumb won.