Orson Swindle | Citizens Against Government Waste

Orson Swindle

CAGW Board Member and Marine Veteran Recounts His First Salvos in the War on Waste


The words of the Marine Corps Hymn - “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea” - bring to mind the sacrifices necessary to keep America strong.  Orson Swindle, the newest member of CAGW’s board of directors, lived those words as a combat Marine aviator in Vietnam.      

Flying his 205th - and what was to have been his last - combat mission over South Vietnam on November 11, 1966, Orson was shot down and captured by the enemy.  He was held a prisoner of war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for the next six years and four months.  He met fellow POW and future U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) in early 1971 after “the North Vietnamese singled out about 30 of us as troublemakers and exiled us to a small detention center we named ‘Skid Row.’”  The North Vietnamese eventually moved Orson into a larger cell under the “truly unique” leadership of Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Colonel Bud Day, who had helped care for the badly wounded McCain after he was shot down and captured in late 1967.  Orson reflects, “The three of us became friends for a lifetime.  John and I slept side-by-side for almost two years.”

On March 4, 1973, Orson was released from captivity at the conclusion of American involvement in Vietnam.  He has been awarded more than 20 military decorations for valor in combat, including two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, two Legions of Merit and two Purple Hearts.  Orson retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1979 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.  However, while serving in four presidential administrations, he has continued to fight our country’s battles as a guardian of the taxpayer’s pocketbook.

Orson was born in Thomasville, Georgia on March 8, 1937 and grew up in Camilla, Georgia.  The oldest of seven siblings, he took on leadership responsibilities early in life, learning skills that served him well in the military.  After graduating from Mitchell County High School in 1955, he earned a bachelor of science degree in industrial management at Georgia Tech in 1959.  After his service in Vietnam, he earned a master’s degree in business administration from Florida State University in 1975.  He and his wife, Angela Williams, live in Alexandria, Virginia.  They both have sons by previous marriages.

Orson joined CAGW’s board of directors in 2006 after serving as a Federal Trade Commissioner from 1997 to 2005, his second stint in government.  From 1981 to 1989, he worked as an appointee in the Reagan Administration, what he calls his “most illuminating” years of government service.  As the Georgia State Director of the Farmers Home Administration for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Orson inherited more than $2 billion in delinquent federal loans to farmers, builders, and rural home owners.  The loans were meant to finance housing, community infrastructure, businesses, and agricultural operations.  His no-nonsense approach apparently angered some Georgia farmers, who complained to Senator Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.), the long-shot winner of the state’s 1980 U.S. Senate race.  Concerned that Orson could hurt his chances of reelection, Senator Mattingly went to the White House, which in 1985 eased Orson out of the Farmers Home Administration and into a job as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development.

In his new role, Orson assumed responsibility for the Economic Development Administration (EDA), earning a reputation for being “hard-nosed on wasteful spending.”  Established in 1966 as one of the “Great Society” programs, EDA ostensibly provides grants and loans to create jobs and growth in economically depressed areas of the country.  However, by the time Orson took on leadership and oversight of the agency, its budget had become a veritable “cookie jar” into which members of Congress reached to finance their pet projects.

Commenting on the Bush Administration’s February 2007 directive to federal agencies to ignore earmark requests contained in non-binding congressional reports or documents, Orson chuckles as he recalls, “I was doing that myself back in the late 1980s, and the pressures brought to bear on me were pretty dramatic.  Not only was I catching hell from members of Congress like [House Speaker] Jim Wright, [Senator] Fritz Hollings, [Representative] Neal Smith and others for ignoring their report language, but they did exactly what’s going on today - applied pressure on [White House Chief of Staff] Howard Baker, the Commerce Secretary and even the Assistant Secretary for Administration (essentially, our budget officer), telling them to get me in line, or they would deny the budget requests for other things in the DoC [Department of Commerce].”

Orson remembers vividly a 1987 run-in with Senator Hollings (D-S.C.) over the senator’s earmark directing EDA to provide a $3.5 million grant to Lexington County, South Carolina for construction of a fiber optics facility.  According to a May 31, 1988 Wall Street Journal article, unemployment in the county stood at a scant 4 percent, and the chief beneficiary of the grant was the Pirelli Cable Corp. - a foreign-owned, for-profit company.  An angry Orson signed the congressionally-mandated grant papers, but noted in official correspondence to the recipient, “This noncompetitive, unconditional, ineligible grant is reluctantly made to Lexington County for the primary and almost exclusive use of the Pirelli Corp.”  He went on to specify that Congress “has directed that the funds be disbursed without regard to laws designed to protect civil rights and the environment.”  

While forced to toe the line on that project, Orson recounts with pleasure denying Speaker Wright (D-Texas) an $11.8 million EDA earmark for development of the Fort Worth Stockyards.  Twenty times larger than the average EDA grant, Speaker Wright’s request stood to benefit his business partner, George Mallick, who had a financial interest in the project.  The “folks at the city government didn’t even know what they wanted the money for,” says Orson.

Based on his experience at EDA, Orson describes as an “iron triangle” the self-perpetuating cycle of government funding.  “The minute you fund a program, you’ve just created a constituency group.  Before long, they will be organized and have a staff here in Washington, which is paid from the dues of the members who get their money from the federal government.  And that staff goes up and lobbies congressional committee staff to keep the money going.  It’s a classic microcosm of what’s wrong with government.” 

Orson continues, “Government lending doesn’t have the best track record in the world, especially with agencies that take on the appearance that they are lenders of last resort.  In fact, I’d say the record is pretty darn miserable.  The minute you replace financial analysis and [private] decision-making with political considerations, you have just created a nightmare.”          

Asked about his greatest concerns for the country, Orson cites, “changing demographics and the apparent unwillingness of those who come [to the United States] to assimilate.  Each wave of immigrants in the past were required to learn and speak English, and they assimilated into society because they bought into the U. S. as representing incredible opportunity.  Today, immigrants are not buying into the culture and in significant numbers are seemingly unwilling to assimilate into a system that works pretty darn well.  The less assimilation, the more problems we have.” 

Orson is also frustrated by an “education system that is appalling.  We can’t survive as a nation turning out the number of uneducated students at the rate we’re doing.”  His other major concern is the growing dependency on government, and on the flip side, the government’s inability to deliver on promised entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare.  Orson holds out hope for “a president who has the intellectual steel and fortitude to engage national problems - one who has the capacity to understand what we face, the courage to solve problems, and the ability to comprehend the complexities of our very diverse society and culture and the leadership challenges we face.”

Orson was fighting the war on waste when most in government did not even know where the battle lines should be drawn.  He now brings first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of government to America’s largest taxpayer watchdog.  For his experience, integrity, and distinguished record of service, CAGW is honored to have Orson Swindle on its board of directors.


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