Show Me the Math: How to Achieve a Leaner Federal Government 

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

Show Me the Math: How to Achieve a Leaner Federal Government 

Mar 28, 2017 3 min read
Rachel Greszler

Senior Research Fellow, Grover M. Hermann Center

Rachel researches and analyzes taxes, Social Security, disability insurance, and pensions to promote economic growth.
It turns out that the federal government is in the business of lots of things it has no business financing. Photo: iStock

The Heritage Foundation has released its second edition of “Blueprint for Balance,” a guide for the fiscal year 2018 federal budget. Unlike some proposals that provide broad outlines for spending levels, Heritage’s blueprint details over 160 different policy proposals that reduce non-defense discretionary spending by $87 billion dollars in the next fiscal year (as well as budget process reforms that would reduce spending by another $31 billion).  

President Donald Trump’s “America First” budget, which includes many of the policies contained in Heritage’s blueprint, cuts non-defense discretionary spending by $54 billion.

In addition to detailing the rationale behind each proposed discretionary cut or policy change, “Blueprint for Balance” adds some one-time savings items as well as some major policy proposals affecting mandatory spending programs. After all, it is impossible to balance the budget for the long run with discretionary cuts alone.  

All told, “Blueprint for Balance” would cut spending by $10 trillion, eliminate about $1 trillion in Obamacare taxes, and reduce deficits by $9 trillion over the next 10 years. And it balances the budget within seven years, in 2024.   

As important as the numbers are in light of looming deficits, the goal of Heritage’s blueprint was never just to cut a certain amount of spending or to balance the budget within a certain timeframe. The purpose is to promote policies that will return the federal government to its proper role, revive true federalism, create opportunity for all, reduce favoritism, maintain American safety and freedom, and ensure that the federal government spends Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars efficiently and effectively as possible.

That is why we asked dozens of Heritage Foundation experts to evaluate current government functions and programs based on whether:

The program’s elimination would increase opportunity or reduce favoritism;

The program would better serve the American people if administered and financed by the private sector;

The program would be better administered by state or local governments; or

The program is wasteful or duplicative.

It turns out that the federal government is in the business of lots of things it has no business financing. Even when the government is providing essential services, there is plenty of room to eliminate duplication, waste and inefficiency.

Take just a couple “Blueprint for Balance” proposals, for example (fiscal 2018 spending levels):

  • Eliminate the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities ($308 million): Taxpayer dollars should not support cultural and entertainment programs that represent personal preferences. There are no national endowments for sports, cooking, or fitness. Private individuals will support these programs at a level that matches their demand.
  • Eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($486 million): With a massive growth in broadcasting options, there is no need for the government to spend nearly half a billion dollars a year on public broadcasting. National Public Radio (NPR) reports that it already obtains 95 percent of its funding from private sources. 
  • Prohibit taxpayer dollars from financing public unions ($156+ million): Whereas private unions have to collect dues to support their activities, public unions receive much of their resources from taxpayer funding. Taxpayers currently pay federal employees to do union work (“official time”) and often provide free office space to federal unions.
  • Repeal the Davis-Bacon Act ($7.791 billion): The Davis-Bacon Act requires all federally financed construction projects to pay “prevailing wages” that are actually 22 percent higher than market wages. Imposing a market wage is an oxymoron; only markets—not laws—can determine market rates.  
  • Eliminate Capital Investment Grants ($2.229 billion): These “New Starts” federal grants encourage localities to build costly, unnecessary, and inefficient transit projects that can ill afford to operate or maintain. California’s SMART rail extension project is one such beneficiary. Despite the project’s own determination that it has “low” potential for economic development, performance, and affordable housing growth, the federal government is nonetheless ponying up two-thirds the cost of the project. 
  • Eliminate the Essential Air Service (EAS) Program ($299 million): Originally only a temporary program, the EAS doles out flight subsidies of around $200 each way for select airline travelers at certain airports that serve as few as 10 passengers per day. It’s not the federal government’s role to pay travelers to patronize otherwise unviable airports when all other travelers must pay the full fare.  

These six proposals are just the beginning. We’ve got about 160 more in the Heritage Foundation’s  “Blueprint for Balance.” And yes, we show the math.