The Hotel California Budget

George Will kvetches about long-obsolete budget items that somehow never end:

Federal funding went to whaling museums in three states from which whalers went to sea (Massachusetts, Alaska and Hawaii) and in Mississippi, which was not a home of whalers but is the home of Sen. Thad Cochran (R), an Appropriations Committee titan. The whaling program, which cost about $9 million in its last year, was administered by the Education Department. It objected to doing this, which is one reason the funding ended: Government changed because part of it was annoyed. Also, a congressman publicized the subsidy.

The $9 million was a piddling smidgen of a fraction of the federal budget, as is the $5 million wool and mohair subsidy. It was smuggled into the 1954 National Wool Act, which was supposed to stimulate wool production, lest we run short when next we need 12 million uniforms for a two-front world war. Mohair had nothing to do with this supposed military necessity, but mohair producers wanted a seat on the gravy train.

There are thousands of such budget items. They check in but they never check out for the reasons Mr. Will outlines.

However, I don’t think that Mr. Will recognizes a tenth of government at all levels’ problems in this regard. It isn’t only budget items. Regulations are rarely ever revisited let alone removed. No bureaucrat was ever criticized for leaving his predecessors’ diktats intact. Regulations are piled on top of one another like Ossa on Pelion.

And that goes for the way in which governments run their affairs as well. When new reporting is required it never goes away. Decades after some nameless department head demanded such-and-such a report from his underlings, civil servants continue to faithfully fill out the paperwork. The next department head will make his or her own pet report part of the routine. It’s no wonder that public employees feel overworked.

Sadly, other than a vigilant and ruthless legislature, something we’ve lacked for most of our history, there are no appealing solutions to the problem. Prior to the Civil Service Code, every new administration swept in with a completely new staff, from department heads to janitors, all political appointees. That swept away the chaff but it also swept away the wheat.

In theory we’ve professionalized government. In practice we’ve frozen the spending, regulations, organizational structures, and approaches of the past in place like a fly in amber.

11 comments… add one
  • mike shupp

    Hard to do much about dust-shrouded reglation of ancient days. In principle, one might envision a bipartisan commission or 6 which would whittle their way through piles of statutes, striving to cut thousands and thousands of pages down to mere hundreds. Are there many Democrats that most Republicans would entrust with such a job? Are there many Repubicans that Deocrats would trust? I don’t think so.

    It’s not just our problem of course. Periodically, supremely able or ruthless individuals have emerged to purify and reform and rewrite the statute books. Moses, with his 10 Laws, might be considered the exemplar. But before him there was Hammurabi, and after him there was Justinian and Bonaparte and Blackstone. Do we have politicians who are worthy of standing in such company?

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