We all had a good laugh watching Rick Perry embarrass himself during a Republican debate a few weeks ago by not remembering which federal agencies he had promised to eliminate, but we should actually be laughing just as derisively at all of the candidates claiming that they’ll just close up a bunch of agencies and save all the money budgeted for them now. Ron Paul, unsurprisingly, has been the most aggressive in this regard:
Paul’s ‘Big Dog’ ad shows mushroom clouds bursting over animated images of the five agencies he’d eliminate in his first year in office: Education, Commerce, Energy, Interior and Housing and Urban Development. A macho-sounding narrator reminds voters that the Texas congressman’s pledge would save $1 trillion — “That’s trillion with a T!” before concluding, “Later, bureaucrats. That’s how Ron Paul rolls.”
Paul’s website also says he would “eliminate the ineffective EPA” because “polluters should answer directly to property owners in court for the damages they create — not to Washington.”
Perry has obviously made similar promises, and Newt Gingrich actually tried to get rid of three agencies when he led Congress in the 90s (and failed). But as Politico notes, these promises are little more than empty applause lines.
Eliminating the Commerce Department, for example, raises constitutional concerns since it houses the U.S. Census Bureau. Local TV meteorologists would be lost without the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Big and small businesses might have problems without the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Chopping DOE also causes heartburn considering it’s the parent department for the Energy Information Administration, a popular source for public data, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent entity that oversees the nation’s electric grid.
Government experts agree there are opportunities for a president to work with Congress in streamlining departments and programs. A Government Accountability Office report released in March found 34 areas of overlap, duplication and fragmentation ripe for reform, including in the military, food safety, health care and ethanol production. GAO calculated its ideas could collectively yield tens of billions of dollars in savings every year if implemented.
“I believe there is more pay dirt in streamlining existing agencies than in trying to abolish them,” said Dwight Ink, who served in a variety of high-level posts under every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan.
Ink, a former director of the Atomic Energy Commission who later helped create the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the EPA, said the GOP candidates are being “fairly irresponsible” in calling for the shuttering of so many different departments.
“In most cases they really do not follow through on what the consequences are,” he said. “They have very little idea what those agencies are doing. If they were eliminated, what functions? Who’d pick them up?”
And even some prominent Republican legislators are pointing out how silly all of this is:
Some veteran GOP lawmakers dismissed their presidential contenders’ calls to chop wholesale departments.
“That’s just talking points,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. While Inhofe said he’d introduce a bill to kill a department if asked by a GOP president, he quickly added, “But I like to get into things where I know I can win.”
“What do you do with Hanford, Wash.?” asked Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), raising a concern about what would happen to one of the nation’s major high-level nuclear waste repositories if the Energy Department was shuttered.
They are right that there is a lot of duplication among various federal agencies and a hell of a lot of wasted money and effort as a result. That GAO report should be the starting point for a bipartisan effort at streamlining the federal government as much as possible.
But let’s not kid ourselves about the nature of our political system. Every single agency enforces regulations that have largely been written by business interests to maximize their profits, which means there are moneyed interests with a big stake in the outcome of any reform effort. Any bill that would implement such a plan would be a huge target for lobbying and bribery — let’s not mince words, that’s what we’re talking about — to keep the rent-seeking regulations, loopholes, subsidies and other advantages currently in place. And we would end up with yet another boondoggle of a bill that serves the interests of the few rather than the many. Welcome to reality.