President Obama said in his State of the Union Address that his ability to effect legislative change is severely hampered by excessive partisanship in Congress. He declared that he would start using the power of the Presidential pen to dictate change through Executive Orders. Mr. Obama decided to selectively enforce the law of the land by unilaterally deferring various Affordable Care Act mandates until after the mid-term elections this year.
The chances of enacting new anti poverty programs or getting more money for education are virtually nil. The President’s domestic agenda is stalled and his signature legislative achievement is unpopular. International relations are perceived to be in disarray as Russia’s Mr. Putin carves up eastern Europe. Most Americans don’t quite agree with Mr. Obama’s view that America’s history of oppressing minorities at home and imperialism abroad means we do not have the moral authority to dictate how other nations are to behave. Our President is in danger of being marginalized as a lame duck for the next two years.
Trust in government is at near all time lows, and surveys now show that Americans on average believe that over half of all federal spending is wasted, a sharp increase from the 40% estimated by a Gallup Poll in 1979. This explains why most Americans believe that we do not need to cut spending on popular social programs and defense even as we run huge deficits. The President has given VP Joe Biden the task of reforming the 47 different federal jobs training programs that collectively cost about $20 billion, out of about $3.45 trillion in 2013 federal spending. But that’s playing “small ball”! Why not go much bigger and use his powers to structurally reform government to be more responsive to the needs of the 21st century?
It has been 80 years since FDR massively reformed the organization and cost of government. Instead of piling on more government, why not attack the waste of resources implied by the overlapping of many government departments? In the private sector, resources and organizations are reorganized regularly. Program or department reductions of 20% are not unusual. Contrast that picture with the public sector. When sequestration mandated cuts of $85 billion in 2013 (half from defense and half from discretionary spending), or about 2.5% of federal spending, one might have thought from administration warnings that the sky was falling, even as total expenditures for the year proceeded to rise anyway. The major problem with this approach was that cuts were made across the board without serious consideration to relative priorities. Air Traffic Controllers were furloughed, causing massive travel disruptions and most other employees were furloughed only to be paid later for their enforced time off.
When discussing waste and inefficiency in government, we are really discussing three separate issues: waste/fraud, duplication of programs, and unnecessary/low priority programs. Most Americans can agree that waste and fraud could and should be eliminated, and eliminating duplication is also popular. But few can agree on what are unnecessary programs, each of which has or had a champion in Congress that worked to get the program enacted typically years ago. That’s because old federal programs never seem to die; over time they become local work programs.
Retiring Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has been one of the few in government that has valiantly fought to expose and eliminate waste and fraud in spending. For several years he has published The Waste Book documenting 100 separate programs or instances of low or questionable priority. The 2013 edition’s programs total about $30 billion and include such gems as $432 million for new aircraft the Air Force neither wants or needs, and which are being mothballed even before being put into service! A thorough restructuring plan should generate savings of at least 10% of federal spending, or about $350 billion annually, enough to continue funding for social programs and take a big chunk out of the federal deficit.
To do an effective restructuring, the President needs to control the agenda. He should create two new bipartisan commissions. The first would be a “Low Priority Programs Sunset Group” to do away with the silly programs that are so politically difficult to kill without the cover of a bipartisan up or down vote for the entirety of program revisions. The second bipartisan commission would be a “Departmental Restructuring Group” to recommend ways to reorganize all government departments other than Defense, which should have it’s own Low Priority Programs Sunset Group and a new Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) whose recommendations would also be subjected to a complete package up or down vote.
At the start of the process, the President should develop his own ideas as to where he wants these commissions to end up. Before appointing any Democrats to serve on these commissions, he should have frank discussions with the candidates, and not appoint anyone that has fundamentally different opinions. He should do the same with Republicans under consideration for the commissions to ensure they are at least vaguely in agreement with his goals. The President can do this because these commissions are his initiative, and not directed by Congress. Ultimately Congress will need to bless the results, but surely Mr. Obama will be able to guide the commissions conclusions more than he was able to do with the Simpson-Bowles Commission. Now is time for Mr. Obama to invest the last of his presidential capital in something he believes in: making government work so well that we can afford to provide for all.