July 20, 2006 | WebMemo on Federal Budget
With federal spending expanding 9 percent in 2006 alone, lawmakers are finally taking up the government waste commission bills (H.R. 5766 and H.R. 3282) authored by Reps. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) and Kevin Brady (R-TX). Both lawmakers should be commended for taking aim at the outdated, failed, and duplicative programs that have been layered on top of one another for decades. To be effective, a government waste commission must be specifically designed to overcome the special interest logrolling that has protected wasteful spending for years. The proven model for doing this is the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission, which has been used to close obsolete military bases since the 1980s. Unfortunately, neither the Tiahrt nor the Brady bill includes the components that made BRAC so successful. Lawmakers seeking budget savings should strengthen these bills.
Why Wasteful Programs Persist
Public choice economists, such as Nobel laureate James Buchanan, blame reelection politics for the persistence of outdated federal programs. Imagine that the federal government ran a $300 million program that pays 1,000 people large sums of money for no legitimate purpose. This program, despite its wastefulness, will be defended to the death by its small cadre of recipients and supporters. The rest of the country may consider the program useless and yet not invest time and energy to fight the program because it costs just $1 per American. When the program's funding comes up, only its supporters will lobby Congress. Even lawmakers who do not have any beneficiaries in their district may support this program in return for other lawmakers' support of their own projects (in other words, logrolling). Multiply this phenomenon by thousands of federal grants and programs, and it becomes clear why Congress fails to eliminate duplicative, wasteful, outdated, and failed programs -and why Washington now spends $23,760 per household annually.
Why BRAC Works
The BRAC model has proven to be the most effective way to eliminate special interest spending. In creating BRAC, lawmakers formed a commission of nonpartisan experts to recommend a large package of base closures across the country. These recommendations were then sent to the House and Senate floors, where lawmakers wererequired to approve or disapprove the entire package without amendment. This solved the public choice puzzle for two reasons. First, it diminished special-interest opposition because lawmakers no longer felt that a single base was being unfairly singled out. And even if lawmakers did feel targeted, the amendment restriction meant that saving their military base required voting down the entire savings package. Second, the merging of so many base closings into one package resulted in large savings-large enough to motivate taxpayers into matching the intensity of military base supporters. Lawmakers could tell local residents that they opposed closing the local base but that the taxpayer savings from all the other closed military bases were large enough to make up for the loss.
Four Elements of a Successful Commission
A government waste commission based on the BRAC model can overcome the logrolling that currently protects wasteful spending. A successful commission must have four key elements:
Element #1: A Bipartisan Commission. The commission mustinclude Republicans, Democrats, independents, and non-member experts in order to allow for bipartisan acceptance of the recommendations.
Element #2: Examine All Agencies and Programs. The commission must be allowed to examine all federal agencies and programs,from defense to entitlements to domestic discretionary programs.
Element #3: Clear and Concise Criteria. The commission must rely on a short and targeted list of criteria to evaluate programs in order to allow a commission to be quick yet scientific in its analysis.
Element #4: Expedited Legislative Action, Without Amendments. Most importantly, the commission must require Congress to vote up-or-down on the entire package of recommendations without any amendments.
Evaluating the Tiahrt Commission Bill
Rep. Tiahrt recently offered the Government Efficiency Act of 2006 (GEA) as a compromise between his more promising bill (H.R. 2470, known as CARFA) and Rep. Brady's commission bill. GEA does include all agencies and programs. However, it could be improved relative to the other three elements:
Evaluating the Brady Commission Bill
Rep. Brady's commission bill is more of a sunset bill than a BRAC-based waste commission. The bill requires that the programs included in the commission's recommendations be abolished unless specifically reauthorized by Congress. Consequently, the programs ultimately targeted under this legislation could be protected by the same special-interest logrolling that currently keeps these programs alive each year. The same congressional majority that funds each program could also reauthorize them one at a time, with no BRAC-style mechanism to change the political dynamic by forcing a vote on a single large reform package. Yet because it is a sunset bill, including a new provision that would merge the entire reauthorization package into a single up-or-down vote may not be within the spirit of the legislation. Therefore, bill improvements can focus on three other aspects of the bill:
Representatives Brady and Tiahrt should be commended for authoring bills to address government waste. Congress should make the necessary amendments to both bills in order to increase the likelihood that, if enacted, these commissions would have a significant impact on reducing federal spending. A government waste commission can provide substantial taxpayer savings when the successful elements of the BRAC commission are effectively utilized. With a bolder vision and some changes to the current legislation, Congress has the potential to pass legislation that actually delivers results on spending.
Brian Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs, and Michelle Muccio is a Research Assistant, in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Ralph Lindeman, "House Effort to Merge Sunset Bills Continues As Measures Head to Mark Up and Floor Vote," BNA Daily Report for Executives, July 20, 2006.