April 17, 1997

April 17, 1997 | Commentary on

ED041797b: Try the Impossible

A recent conversation with a group of voters -- known in the parlance as a "focus group" -- revealed that most Americans have just about given up on Washington ever balancing the budget.

Washington has done such a cynically good job of convincing people that the budget can't be balanced without padlocking the Washington Monument, forcing senior citizens into soup-kitchen lines, and cutting huge holes in the safety net for the poor that the whole idea has become a non-issue.

That's why members of Congress should make it their No. 1 issue.

The only way to attack the cynicism that rots the body politic is by showing the American people that nothing is impossible if you really put your heart and mind to it. Heck, that's what we tell our kids every day, right? Is it all a big lie?

Newt Gingrich & Company can do the impossible if they really try -- and nobody will be hurt. The last Congress -- the 104th -- eliminated more than 270 federal programs, agencies and offices, and nobody is dying in the streets as a result. Wall-to-wall protesters aren't manning the barricades. The world hasn't come to an end.

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Americans, including Yours Truly, can't name more than one or two of the now defunct programs. That shows you how necessary they were and how much they're missed. Not at all.

Scott Hodge, who was named by a local business magazine as one of Washington's premier "pork busters," recently completed a top-to-bottom review of hundreds and hundreds of government programs. He found 160 separate job-training programs, run by 15 different federal agencies, at an annual cost to taxpayers of $20 billion. Some of the "jobs" programs are so loosely run, according to government auditors, they have no idea how many "students" are enrolled or what percentage ever get jobs.

Hodge also found dozens of programs that are so out of date that they should have been retired years ago. The Rural Electrification Administration, for example, was created in 1935 to help bring electricity to rural America. Despite the fact that its job was completed many years ago, the REA still lives on, now with a new identity: the Rural Utilities Service. Retire the program and we save $1.8 billion over the next five years. Then there's the Depression-era Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), previously known as the Soil Conservation Service. The 12,000-person agency operates out of 2,500 field offices around the country at an annual cost of some $800 million. Its work is so vital that the government's audit agency, the General Accounting Office, could find no difference in soil erosion levels between areas served by the NRCS and those ignored by the NRCS.

Hodge also found programs that take money from you and me and hand it over to some of the world's largest and wealthiest corporations.

In short, Hodge found that balancing the budget would be anything but impossible if Washington would get serious and ask the right questions: Does this program work? Does this program duplicate other existing programs? Have the goals of this program been accomplished? Is this an appropriate function of the federal government?

In his 450-page book, "Balancing America's Budget," Hodge asks precisely such questions. He proposes getting rid of those programs that don't pass the test. In the process, he found, we will get the balanced budget Washington keeps promising while telling us it can't be done.

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Note: Edwin J. Feulner,Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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