Commentary

Immortality in Washington

By Stephen Moore
November 27, 1997

Two years ago Republican leaders pledged to get rid of government programs, not just create new ones. So far, the Republicans have mostly demonstrated that they can create new programs. The budget deal, for instance, authorizes $20 billion for four new health care entitlements and several new spending initiatives for job training, welfare and education.

But have congressional Republicans actually gotten rid of anything? I posed that question to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston last month and received an impressive four-page fax enumerating more than 200 program terminations since January 1995. The list of shutdowns includes such absurdities as the Women’s Educational Equity Act, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration and the Department of Energy’s gas turbine modular helium reactor. And don’t forget Newt’s favorite: no more ice deliveries to the House Office Buildings. “While President Clinton fights to add to the bureaucracy,” crows Livingston, “we are cutting it.”

Here’s the bad news: all but a handful of the 200-odd oinkers on Mr. Livingston’s list have price tags of less than $1 million — not even a rounding error in our $1.7 trillion budget. The total annual savings from those closures amounts to $4 billion, or 0.2 percent of federal largesse. To the GOP’s credit, that is $4 billion more than the Democrats ever saved. Still, Medicare and Social Security spend more than that in a shortened work week. Worse, some of the terminated programs have simply been reincarnated under new aliases in different agencies.

Back in the headier days of early 1995, the House GOP slated more than 300 major federal programs and three cabinet agencies for the federal graveyard in their Contract with America. Every one of those programs deserved execution. Some of them — such as the Legal Services Corporation, bilingual education funds, and Bill Clinton’s army of $7.27 per hour Americorps “volunteers” —are merely political slush funds. Others — like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration —are so antiquated that Barry Goldwater pledged to shut them down when he ran for president more than 30 years ago. The price tags and the cobwebs, of course, are much bigger now. Most of the other programs — including the Economic Development Administration, Amtrak, federal transit grants, the Appalachian Regional Commission and maritime subsidies — are simply hopelessly ineffectual.

The closure of the Commerce, Education and Energy Departments would have saved nearly $20 billion a year, and the catalog of individual program exterminations another $14 billion. In short, getting rid of even a fraction of the unproductive programs in Washington would save real money and almost instantly bring the budget into balance.


Despite congressional Republicans’ lofty rhetoric about making government smaller and smarter when they seized control of Capitol Hill in 1995, here’s the sad reality: there’s almost nothing of consequence that the government was doing three years ago that it’s not still doing today.


Yet almost none of the promised savings have been delivered. Overall expenditures have actually risen slightly for the 40 largest agencies, boards and commissions that were supposed to have been closed by now. For example, Americorps’ budget was $426 million when the GOP took Congress. Now it’s $504 million. The odious Goals 2000 program — “free money” that some states have actually rejected because of the meddlesome strings attached — has nearly tripled in size, from $231 million to $688 million. Twenty billion dollars a year could be saved by eliminating just 22 of the programs that were supposed to have been out of business by now.

Yes, many useless programs, such as Low Income Home Energy Assistance and federal land acquisition programs (it’s not enough that the feds already own more than one-quarter of all the acreage!) have had their budgets trimmed. But the likelihood that those or any agencies will be closed down permanently during the appropriations process this fall is close to zero.

To be fair, the Republicans’ record here is sterling compared to that of the Clinton White House. Last year the White House could only name three minuscule programs, including a U.S. Army-owned dairy farm, it wished to extinguish. And Bill Clinton’s 1998 budget recommends adding scores of new government agencies.

Ronald Reagan once quipped that the closest thing to eternal life on this earth is a federal government program. These days, that adage seems to be an immutable law of politics. Despite congressional Republicans’ lofty rhetoric about making government smaller and smarter when they seized control of Capitol Hill in 1995, here’s the sad reality: there’s almost nothing of consequence that the government was doing three years ago that it’s not still doing today.

And so we are now encumbered with a $1.7 trillion government in Washington, the most expensive enterprise in the history of the world, that is virtually impervious to change. This is the ultimate tyranny of the status quo. And it is precisely what makes Washington both vastly expensive and irrelevant to most Americans. A government wholly dedicated to solving yesterday’s problems cannot be of much use in solving tomorrow’s.

How to Save Taxpayers $20 Billion a Year:
Major Federal Programs Slated for Termination in 1995 1997 Outlays ($ Millions)
Community Development Block Grants 4,837
Federal Transit Administration 3,541
Home Investment Partnership Program 1,445
Vocational Education 1,151
Low Income Home Energy Assistance 1,097
Summer Youth Employment and Training 871
School Improvement Programs 870
Aid to Former Soviet Union 696
Goals 2000 688
Amtrak 552
Corp. for National and Community Service 504
Education Dept. Federal Trio Programs 500
Aid to East Europe and Baltic States 497
Economic Development Administration 453
Maritime Administration 398
Adult Education 370
School to Work Grants 332
Advanced Technology Program 270
Trade Adjustment Assistance 265
Corporation for Public Broadcasting 260
Legal Services Corporation 257
Bilingual Education  
Total 20,079

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.