A Thousand Cuts, Ctd

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

The post about "A Thousand Cuts" showed a stunning lack of understanding of what it will take to cut the budget. I am very familiar with the budget process in state government and the federal government works the same way.

In the first place, it IS Congress and the various Administrations that have put us where we are. Expecting the bureaucracy to make cuts ignores the fact that the bureaucracy exists to implement and administer laws, not interpret and adjust the impact of them. No bureaucrat, at the federal or state level, has any flexibility to make cuts in programs, and any law that gave them that authority would probably be ruled unconstitutional. No one has elected the bureaucrats and they are not really accountable to the people, they are only accountable to the specific agency or department for which they work, and then only to the extent that existing law gives them any discretion within certain parameters. No bureaucrat has the authority to slash whole programs. You assume they have more power than they actually have.

The reason it is so hard to cut the budget, especially nowadays, is every single government expenditure has a constituency, and groups and even individuals who may be impacted by the budget cuts all know how to contact their legislator and will fight to the death to save their piece of the pie. Once a program is created, it gets rolled over year after year because the money to pay for it has become part of an agency base budget.

The real changes that are required need a level of commitment that is hard to sustain in what is really a two year election cycle for all but the Senate. Somebody needs to engage in a process to re-engineer the services provided, and have the authority and guts to actually implement those changes. Why are we still funding the Rural Electrification program? The Energy Department was created in the 1970's to address the oil shortage. 50,000 employees and 40 years later, and how closer are we to energy independence? But the department is "baked into" the federal budget, and I'll bet a dollar that no one has gone back and revisited the original purpose for the department and asked "is this still a goal that we should pursue"? I don't mean that no on in the Energy Department does any work, but the value added work for which they were created has shifted over the years because the original goal was not attainable, or no one was willing to push towards that goal, or both.

So the answer is to really step back and consider what services the federal government should provide, what it can provide, and at what level, but laying the responsibility for doing that at the foot of the bureaucrat is not going to get us anywhere.

I take some of these points, but Canada is doing something similar to what I proposed, so I'm not convinced it's crazy. We still need Congress to address big ticket items and locate ineffective programs; giving bureaucrats the power and a reason to save money would be a compliment, not a replacement, to the sort of restructuring this reader describes. I'm not sure how this would be unconstitutional given Congress would be giving this power to bureaucrats and could take it away. Congress is accountable even if it is not making the decisions directly.

Another reader:

Regarding "A Thousand Cuts" you write that "if the department doesn't spend its full budget the budget might get clipped the next year."  I've spent enough time working in government offices (local & state) to say you should change the phrase "might get clipped" to "will get clipped".  Department heads make sure that every cent of an annual budget is spent - often at then end of a fiscal year such spending is in haste and on completely superfluous exercises.  A conversation along these lines is long overdue - and  - if it can be conducted without the ever-present cynicism of party politics we might actually begin to make some positive changes to how government operates.  I say this with the personal belief (and my own level of cynicism) that the last thing the right wants to do is make government more efficient and responsive - that would make their "all government is bad government" mantra look as foolish as it actually is.