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Lloyd Omdahl, Published January 01 2011

Omdahl: Red tape is getting a bad rap

‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison told the voters of New York in 1788 when they were considering whether to ratify the new U. S. Constitution.

Well, men are not angels. In fact, a certain percentage of them are crooks, scam artists, swindlers, exploiters and cheaters who take every opportunity to exploit government programs and get benefits and services to which they are not entitled.

To defend the integrity of their programs, local, state and federal governments issue rules and regulations, together with complicated forms to guarantee eligibility and thereby keep the chiselers at bay. We call this system of accountability “red tape.”

While we complain bitterly about red tape, we also complain with equal bitterness if there isn’t red tape to stop abuses. Take a recent examination of the federal home weatherization program in Tennessee. Auditors found that federal money was spent on “shoddy, inappropriate or unfinished work.” That makes us angry, and we want to know why the rules and regulations didn’t prevent this waste. Apparently, the program lacked sufficient red tape.

Example No. 2: the $100 million lost by the Pentagon in unused airplane tickets, for which refunds were available but not captured. Here again, not enough red tape to establish accountability.

Remember the Iraqi recovery program when $8 billion of taxpayer money was being hauled around on pallets? It just disappeared because there was no “red tape” regulating the handling of this money. Then there was the bank bailout? It had no red tape regulating the paying of billions in bonuses to the people responsible for the crisis. No rules and regulations; no accountability. No red tape.

The Obama administration was hoping to pay for the new health care program by clamping down on abuses in the Medicare program. Billions of dollars are being stolen annually because the current system provides too many opportunities for individuals, clinics and hospitals to rip off the system. Blue Cross Blue Shield reminds us regularly to check the charges for services, but the billing system is so complex it is impossible to track the money.

Even in North Dakota, our red tape doesn’t screen out all ineligible people in programs that hand out money for some good social end. There are some folks abusing food stamps, fuel assistance, Medicaid and other charitable programs even though documentation of need is thoroughly established with lengthy forms. Not enough red tape.

Of course, red tape sufficient to provide an ironclad defense against thievery may be a matter of diminishing returns. At some point the benefits of red tape may not be worth the cost. At the same time, however, we need red tape because men are not angels and many of them will, given the opportunity, rip off the taxpayers.

Whenever someone proposes to “cut the red tape,” they usually mean they would like greater opportunities to get benefits or spend public money with less accountability. That creates more opportunities for abuse by the ever-present exploiters. Red tape and accountability go hand-in-hand.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. E-mail ndmatters@q.com.