How to Get Federal Spending Under Control

Report Budget and Spending

How to Get Federal Spending Under Control

March 10, 2004 30 min read Download Report
Brian Riedl
Brian Riedl
Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute

Following a multi-year spending spree that pushed federal spending above $20,000 per household and the budget deficit up to nearly $500 billion, lawmakers are finally seeking ways to control federal spending. President George W. Bush's 2005 budget provides a positive first step by proposing to freeze most non-security discretionary spending at 2004 levels.

Reducing federal spending is extraordinarily difficult. Even the most wasteful programs are passionately supported by armies of recipients, administrators, and lobbyists. Yet avoiding these difficult decisions only makes the problem worse. The baby boomers will soon collide with Social Security and Medicare to produce a sea of red ink, leading to a near doubling of all taxes or the termination of most federal programs. Lawmakers need to get spending under control immediately while laying the groundwork for comprehensive Social Security and Medicare reforms.

If they are serious about controlling spending, lawmakers should take the following five steps:

  1. Stop digging. Federal spending is growing at its fastest rate since the 1960s, but many of the same lawmakers that are calling for spending restraint also support legislation to expand highway spending by 72 percent, increase special education spending by 151 percent, and once again extend unemployment benefits. Each of these spending increases will dig the United States deeper into its financial hole and necessitate even more difficult choices later. Lawmakers should cut spending now.
  2. Balance the budget by 2014 without raising taxes. Budget deficits are merely a symptom of two larger problems: a sluggish economy and runaway spending. Restoring economic growth requires low tax rates, and runaway spending is the most dangerous threat to pro-growth tax relief. Balancing the budget with spending cuts will improve the country's ability to deal with the massive Social Security and Medicare liabilities that will come due when the baby boomers retire.
  3. Freeze discretionary spending in 2005. Discretionary spending leaped 39 percent between 2001 and 2004. Even after excluding defense and costs related to September 11, discretionary spending is rising 7 percent annually. Do these agencies need yet another spending increase this year? Congress and the President should do what millions of families do: set priorities and balance each high-priority spending increase with a low-priority spending cut.
  4. Reform entitlements. Spending cannot be restrained without reforming entitlements, which comprise two-thirds of all federal spending and threaten the country's long-term finances. (See Chart 2.) These programs are projected to grow by 6 percent annually for the next decade. Table 1, which displays the spending restraint needed to balance the budget by 2014, shows that all scenarios to balance the budget by 2014 require reducing the 6 percent annual growth rate of mandatory spending. Lawmakers seeking to rein in spending should put all entitlement spending on the table, including the 2003 Medicare drug bill and the 2002 farm bill.
  5. Fix the budget process. Lawmakers still cling to a budget process created in 1974. Over the past 30 years, successive Congresses have punched this process full of holes, and federal spending has correspondingly tripled. The current budget process provides no workable tools to limit spending, no restrictions on passing massive costs onto future generations, and no incentive to bring all parties to the table early in the budget process to set a framework. The Family Budget Protection Act, authored by Representatives Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chris Chocola (R-IN), and Christopher Cox (R-CA), provides a comprehensive proposal for creating a budget process that reflects America's budget priorities and should be closely examined by anyone interested in budget reform.




As lawmakers work to bring federal spending under control, they should avoid the following common traps:

  • Expecting an economic boom to balance the budget. While recent tax cuts will likely aid economic growth and bring in new tax revenues, it is unrealistic to expect tax revenues to grow at the 9 percent annual rate necessary to balance the budget by 2014 under current spending trends. Balancing the budget requires spending restraint.
  • Increasing spending through accounting gimmicks. Lawmakers tried to hide the 2004 spending increases by shifting budget authority between years, which is Congress's equivalent of backdating its checks. These accounting gimmicks could not cover up the 9 percent increase in projected discretionary outlays for 2004. Lawmakers are already discussing an innovative gimmick to increase domestic spending in 2005: funding a large domestic spending increase by taking the money out of defense, knowing that an underfunded defense budget can be remedied later by substantially adding to the President's planned 2005 supplemental defense bill. If lawmakers insist on these gimmicks, spending could again grow rapidly.
  • Making only the easy spending cuts. Lawmakers often reject any spending cut that could offend someone. Yet every dollar government spends--no matter how wasteful--is received by someone who would be angry to lose these benefits. Every spending cut will offend somebody, and any easy cuts surely would have been made by now. Lawmakers who are serious about cutting spending should focus on the millions of taxpayers--both current and future--who are forced to sacrifice their financial well-being in order to fund ineffective federal programs.


Belt-Tightening Budgets Versus Priority Budgets

Following several "expansion budgets," President Bush has moved the debate in a more responsible direction by proposing a "belt-tightening budget" that asks most agencies to accept a near-freeze in discretionary spending. But would most families trying to cut costs simply freeze each expenditure equally? Or would they fully fund priorities like food, the mortgage payment, and insurance while completely eliminating unaffordable luxuries such as vacations and entertainment?

Most families would choose this "priority budget" over a "belt-tightening budget," and so should government. A priority budget would ask lawmakers to fully fund a few top priorities, such as defense, homeland security, and a few domestic programs, and then terminate such unaffordable luxuries as the approximately $60 billion in corporate welfare spending; the $20 billion pork-project budget; $100 billion (at least) in waste, fraud, and abuse; and hundreds of ineffective, outdated, and unnecessary programs.

Belt-tightening budgets are certainly preferable to the expansion budgets of the past few years. However, reducing a program's funding without correspondingly adjusting its structure, goals, and duties can lead to ineffective government. Better a few vital activities performed well than a multitude of activities performed poorly.

President Bush proposes terminating 65 programs at a savings of $4.9 billion. (See Appendix 1.) Although a step in the right direction, these low-priority terminations represent only 0.2 percent of all federal spending. By contrast, a priority budget would:

  • Fully fund a limited number of high-priority spending categories, such as defense and homeland security;
  • Terminate entire categories of lower-priority programs, such as corporate welfare;
  • Institute a moratorium on pork projects;
  • Limit non-security spending increases to programs that pass their audits; and
  • Substantially reform programs growing at unsustainable rates, such as Social Security and Medicare.

Time to be Bold

Congress last attempted to enact a priority budget in 1995 and 1996, when the 104th Congress terminated several programs whose irrelevance was proven by how quickly they were forgotten. But Congress then committed several strategic errors, such as overreaching and shutting down the federal government in 1995. After President Bill Clinton deftly exploited these mistakes, budget cutters overreacted to Clinton's tactics by completely abandoning the mission of smaller government. By 1998, federal spending was growing once again as a paralyzed Congress decided that budget confrontations with the Clinton White House could never be won and should be avoided at all costs.

In 2004, national defense, homeland security, and entitlement challenges make spending reform more important than ever. It is time to step back and think about the role of government, the obligations of the private sector, and the delineation between federal and state responsibilities. For those interested in lean, effective government with low taxes, the following are 10 guidelines for getting spending under control.

GUIDELINE #1: Build a constituency for limited government and lower taxes.

Interest groups are always ready to defend their special-interest subsidies. Taxpayers rarely fight wasteful spending because they do not believe they will ever see the savings. Policymakers can organize taxpayers in opposition to wasteful spending by linking specific reforms and spending reductions to specific tax cuts, such as legislation to:

  • Terminate corporate welfare and use the savings for capital gains and business tax cuts;
  • Reduce outdated and duplicative programs and use the savings to reduce income taxes across the board;
  • Privatize federal corporations by offering current public employees stock options at below-market prices;
  • Commercialize air traffic control duties and privatize airports, targeting the savings to airline security; and
  • Devolve programs to states while alleviating federal mandates and reducing federal taxes.

Using the military base closing commission as a model, Congress should create an independent commission that would present Congress with a list of all duplicative, wasteful, outdated, and failed programs that should be eliminated, and earmark all savings to an immediate across-the-board income tax cut.1 To prevent Members from preserving their own special-interest programs, the legislation should not be amendable. When faced with a clear decision between funding outdated government programs and reducing the tax burden, most taxpayers would encourage their representatives to let them keep more of their own money.

GUIDELINE #2: Turn local programs back to the states.

Only the federal government can handle national defense, international relations, and the administration of federal laws. But why should politicians in Washington decide which roads are built in Appleton, Wisconsin? Or which community development projects are funded in St. Louis, Missouri? Or how education dollars are spent in Cheyenne, Wyoming?

The federal government taxes families, subtracts a hefty administrative cost, and then sends the remaining tax revenues back to the state and local governmentswith specific rules dictating how they may and may not spend the money. In that sense, the federal government is merely an expensive middleman, contributing little more than meddling mandates that constrain the flexibility that state and local governments need to address their own issues creatively.

No distant bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., can know which policies are best for every state and locality. One-size-fits-all federal mandates rarely succeed as well as flexible programs designed by state and local officials who are closer to the people affected. Moreover, legislators have little incentive to design programs that work beyond their home constituencies.

State and local governments, which often consider federal grants "free money," also lack sufficient incentives to spend this money well because they did not have to extract the taxes themselves. (Many seem to forget the high federal taxes that local residents paid for this "free money.") Consequently, local officials rarely object to federal grants for unnecessary projects.

Few local governments, for example, would consider taxing their own residents to fund the following pork-barrel projects found in the 2004 federal budget:2

  • $725,000 for the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
  • $200,000 for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio;
  • $150,000 for a single traffic light in Briarcliff Manor, New York;
  • $100,000 for the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee;
  • $500,000 for the Montana Sheep Institute; and
  • $50 million to construct an indoor rainforest in Coralville, Iowa.

The federal government can promote accountability, flexibility, and local control by eliminating many of the mandates on how state and local governments address their own issues and letting them raise their own revenues and create their own programs without meddling Washington bureaucrats and politicians. Specifically, Congress should:

  • Turn back the federal gas tax, as well as all federal highway and mass transit spending, to the states (2004 spending: $37 billion, discretionary);3
  • Devolve federal housing programs to state and local governments and cut federal strings on how the programs are operated ($31 billion, discretionary);
  • Send job training programs back to the states ($5,600 million, discretionary);
  • Transfer economic development programs (e.g., Community Development Block Grants, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Denali Commission, and the Tennessee Valley Authority) back to the regions that best know how to address their local economies ($5,952 million, discretionary);
  • Devolve Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers projects to state and regional authorities ($5,614 million, discretionary);
  • Allow states flexibility and control over their own education programs;
  • Send the Superfund program to the states and allow local flexibility in deciding how to clean contaminated sites ($1,108 million, discretionary);
  • Turn back law enforcement grant programs to the states ($3,041 million, discretionary);
  • Devolve the Natural Resources Conservation Service to the states ($3,046 million, discretionary);
  • Transfer the Institute of Museum Services and Library Sciences to the states ($262 million, discretionary);
  • Devolve Youth Opportunity Grants to local governments ($40 million, discretionary);
  • Send the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation to the cities it affects ($114 million, discretionary); and
  • Eliminate the practice of earmarking federal funds for local projects.

GUIDELINE #3: Privatize activities that could be performed better by the private sector.

Over the past two decades, nations across the globe have reaped the benefits of privatization, which empowers the private sector to carry out functions that had been performed by government. In the 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher saved taxpayers billions of dollars and improved the British economy by privatizing utilities, telecommunications, and airports. More recently, the former Soviet republics and China have seen the promise of privatization. The United States, however, has been uncharacteristically timid in recent years.

There is little economic justification for the government to run businesses that the private sector can run itself. Even when there is a compelling reason for government to regulate or subsidize businesses, it can do so without seizing ownership of them. Government failures are often larger than market failures, and anyone who has dealt with the post office, lived in public housing, or visited a local department of motor vehicles understands how wasteful, inefficient, and unresponsive government can be.

Furthermore, government ownership crowds out private companies and encourages protected entities to take unnecessary risks. After promising profits, government-owned businesses frequently lose billions of dollars, leaving the taxpayers to foot the bill.

Entrenched opposition to privatization, which comes mostly from interest groups representing government monopolies, has been overcome elsewhere by (1) working with government unions and relevant interest groups to design privatization proposals, (2) offering low-cost stock options to current employees, and (3) ensuring a transparent, open bidding process.

Candidates for privatization are numerous.4 Congress should:

  • Sell the remaining Power Marketing Administrations through a stock offering (2004 spending: $155 million, discretionary);5
  • Require that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting fund itself as all other television networks do ($437 million, discretionary);
  • Privatize the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation ($14 million, discretionary);
  • Allow government agencies to accept bids on government printing jobs instead of having to use the Government Printing Office (GPO) ($130 million, discretionary);
  • Shift the National Agricultural Statistics Service to the private sector ($124 million, discretionary);
  • Sell Amtrak through a stock offering ($1,334 million, discretionary);
  • Privatize the next-generation high-speed rail program ($27 million, discretionary);
  • Turn over the foreign market development program to the assisted industries ($24 million, mandatory);
  • Privatize ineffective applied research programs for energy conversation research, fossil fuels, and solar and renewable energy ($1,640 million, discretionary);
  • Sell many of the federal government's 1,200 civilian aircraft and 380,000 non-tactical, non-postal vehicles;
  • Shift the Energy Information Agency's duties to the private sector ($78 million, discretionary);
  • Privatize the Architect of the Capitol ($534 million, discretionary); and
  • Privatize-commercialize air traffic control operations and fully fund with user fees.

Government-owned enterprises are not the only candidates for privatization. In 2003, taxpayers were on the hook for the federal government's $249 billion in outstanding direct loans and $1,184 billion in outstanding guaranteed loans. Government loans typically undercut the financial services industry, which has sufficient resources to provide loans to businesses and

Even worse, government often serves as a lender of last resort to organizations that private banks do not consider qualified for loans, and the low-cost nature of government loans encourages recipients to take unnecessary risks with their federal dollars. Consequently, a high percentage of federal loans are in default, and taxpayers were saddled with $17 billion in direct loan write-offs and guaranteed loan terminations in 2003.6

Therefore, Congress should:

  • Begin selling government direct loan programs and create new agency loan guarantees such as those of the Rural Utilities Service, Small Business Administration, Export-Import Bank, and Rural Housing Service.

GUIDELINE #4: Terminate failed, outdated, and irrelevant programs.

President Ronald Reagan once pointed out that "a government bureau is the closest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on earth." A large portion of the current federal bureaucracy was created during the 1900s, 1930s, and 1960s in attempts to solve the unique problems of those eras.

Instead of replacing the outdated programs of the past, however, each period of government activism has built new programs on top of them. Ford Motor Company would not waste money today by building outdated Model T's alongside their current Mustangs and Explorers. However, in 2004, the federal government still refuses to close down old agencies such as the Rural Utilities Service (designed to bring phones to rural America) and the U.S. Geological Survey (created to explore and detail the nation's geography).

Government must be made light and flexible, adaptable to the new challenges the country will face in the 21st century. Weeding out the failed and outdated bureaucracies of the past will free resources to modernize the government.

Status Quo Bias. Lawmakers often acknowledge that certain programs show no positive effects. Regrettably, they also refuse to terminate even the most irrelevant programs. The most obvious reason for this timidity is an aversion to fighting the special interests that refuse to let their pet programs end without a bloody fight.

A less obvious reason is that eliminating government programs seems reckless and bold to legislators who have never known a federal government without them. Although thousands of programs have come and gone in the nation's 228-year history, virtually all current programs were created before most lawmakers came to Washington. For legislators who are charged with budgeting and implementing the same familiar programs year after year, a sense of permanency sets in, and termination seems unfathomable.7 No one even remembers when a non-government entity addressed the problems.

The Department of Energy, for example, has existed for just one-tenth of the country's history, yet closing it down seems ridiculous to those who cannot remember the federal government before 1977 and for whom appropriating and overseeing the department has been an annual ritual for years. Lawmakers need a long-term perspective to assure them the sky does not fall when a program is terminated. For example, the Bureau of Mines and the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration, both closed in 1996, are barely remembered today.8

Instead of just assuming that whoever created the programs decades ago must have been filling some important need that probably exists today, lawmakers should focus on the future by asking themselves the following question: If this program did not exist, would I vote to create it? Because the answer for scores of programs would likely be "no," Congress should:

  • Close down failed or outdated agencies, programs, and facilities, including:
  1. The U.S. Geological Survey9 (2004 spending: $841 million, discretionary);10
  2. The Maritime Administration ($633 million, discretionary);
  3. The International Trade Commission ($61 million, discretionary);
  4. The Economic Development Administration ($417 million, discretionary);
  5. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program ($1,892 million, discretionary);
  6. The Technology Opportunities Program ($12 million, discretionary);
  7. Obsolete military bases;
  8. The Appalachian Regional Commission ($94 million, discretionary);
  9. Obsolete Veterans Affairs facilities;
  10. The Rural Utilities Service (-$1,493 million,11 mandatory); and
  11. Repeal Public Law 480's non-emergency international food programs ($127 million, discretionary).
  • End low-priority programs that should never have been created in the first place, including:
  1. The Denali Commission (2004 spending: $56 million, discretionary);12
  2. The Conservation Reserve Program ($1,879 million, mandatory);13
  3. The Commission of Fine Arts ($8 million, discretionary);
  4. The Historic Whaling and Trading Partners Exchange Program ($9 million, discretionary);
  5. The Office of Navajo and Hopi Relocation ($14 million, discretionary);
  6. AmeriCorps ($324 million, discretionary);
  7. The National Endowment for the Humanities ($131 million, discretionary);
  8. Farm subsidies for wool, mohair, lentils, and chickpeas ($28 million, mandatory);
  9. The Marine Mammal Commission ($3 million, discretionary);
  10. The East−West Center ($20 million, discretionary);
  11. The Legal Services Corporation ($341 million, discretionary);
  12. The protectionist programs of the International Trade Administration ($364 million, discretionary);
  13. The Bureau of International Labor Affairs ($105 million, discretionary);
  14. The National Commission on Libraries and Information Science ($1 million, discretionary);
  15. The U.S. Institute of Peace ($17 million, discretionary);
  16. The Agriculture Department's wood utilization research ($6 million, discretionary);
  17. The National Endowment for the Arts ($112 million, discretionary); and
  18. Most of the 945 federal advisory committees and commissions scattered across 52 agencies.14
  • Streamline the federal government by:
  1. Cutting the non-security workforce by 10 percent;
  2. Reducing the number of consultants employed by the federal government by 150,000;
  3. Suspending acquisition of new federal office space;
  4. Trimming the federal vehicle budget by 5 percent; and
  5. Freezing the federal travel budget at $8 billion15 (Total annual savings: $11 billion).
  • Implement some additional housekeeping items, including:
  1. Taking back grants to state and local governments that have not been spent within the past three years;
  2. Rescinding any remaining appropriated funds to promote the new $20 bill (2004 spending: up to $53 million, discretionary); and
  3. Consolidating the dozens of small, irrelevant education programs that divert money from more effective education programs ($200 million, discretionary).

GUIDELINE #5: Improve financial management and reform wasteful programs.

Congress must provide stronger financial management oversight for federal programs, which are losing billions of dollars every year from mismanagement. The following examples of inexcusable waste make a convincing case for reform:

  • The federal government cannot account for $24.5 billion spent in 2003.16
  • The U.S. General Accounting Office refuses to certify the federal government's own accounting books because the bookkeeping is so poor.
  • Of the 26 departments and major agencies, 18 received the lowest possible rating for their financial management, meaning that auditors cannot even express an opinion on their financial statements.17
  • The Medicare program pays as much as eight times the cost that other federal agencies pay for the same drugs and medical supplies.18
  • The federal government made $20 billion in overpayments in 2001.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development's $3.3 billion in overpayments in 2001 accounted for over 10 percent of the department's total budget.19
  • Recently, the Department of Agriculture was unable to account for $5 billion in receipts and expenditures;
  • The Internal Revenue Service does not even know how much it collects in payroll taxes.20
  • Congressional investigators were able to receive $55,000 in federal student loan funding for a fictional college they created to test the Department of Education.21
  • The Army Corps of Engineers has been accused of illegally manipulating data to justify expensive but unnecessary public works projects.22
  • A recent audit revealed that employees of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) diverted as much as 3 percent of the USDA budget to personal purchases through their government-issued credit cards.23
  • Over one recent 18-month period, Air Force and Navy personnel used government-funded credit cards to charge at least $102,400 for admission to entertainment events, $48,250 for gambling, $69,300 for cruises, and $73,950 for exotic dance clubs and prostitutes.24


The government's own auditors, as well as outside watchdog groups, have recommended specific reforms to:

  • Reduce food stamp overpayments (annual net losses: $600 million, mandatory);25
  • Verify parent incomes for school lunches (up to $120 million, mandatory);
  • Improve eligibility verification and tracking of student loan recipients (at least $1 billion, mandatory);
  • Prevent states from using accounting tricks to secure extra Medicaid funds (several billion dollars, mandatory);
  • Combat fuel tax fraud ($1 billion, discretionary);
  • Stop veterans program overpayments ($800 million, mandatory/ discretionary);
  • Collect $3 billion in outstanding debt owed to the Department of Veterans Affairs;
  • Stop Medicare overpayments ($12.3 billion, mandatory);
  • Reform Medicare so that it no longer overpays for prescription drugs and medical supplies ($2,900 million, mandatory);
  • Recover the $7 billion owed by Medicare contractors; and
  • Reform the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to stop overpayments ($9 billion, mandatory).

GUIDELINE #6: Terminate corporate welfare and other mistargeted programs.

There is no justification for taxing waitresses and welders to subsidize Fortune 500 companies. Mistargeted programs, such as approximately $60 billion in annual corporate welfare spending, come in many formsdirect payments, low-cost loans or insurance, and subsidized servicesbut they all provide services to which special interests are not entitled and that they do not need.

These programs harm the economy. Operating subsidies and loans to private businesses overtax productive sectors of the economy and redistribute that money to less productive sectors, based on the fallacy that it will somehow create jobs. Programs subsidizing start-up companies represent a misguided attempt by government to pick the market's winners and losers.

In addition, research subsidies for profit-seeking businesses, which already have an incentive to fund their own profitable research, merely displace private research funding with taxpayer funds. Emergency grant and loan programs encourage businesses to take irrational risks with the assurance that taxpayers will cover any losses.

Congress therefore should:

  • Eliminate direct corporate welfare payments by:
  1. Closing down the Minority Business Development Agency (2004 spending: $22 million, discretionary);26
  2. Disqualifying high-income farmers and agribusinesses from farm subsidies ($8,000 million, mandatory);27
  3. Eliminating the Small Business Administration ($3,978 million, discretionary);
  4. Terminating the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (-$157 million, discretionary);
  5. Shutting down the Trade and Development Agency ($62 million, discretionary);
  6. Eliminating the Market Access Program ($119 million, mandatory);
  7. Closing down the Export−Import Bank
    (-$1,582 million, mandatory);
  8. Repealing the Davis−Bacon and Service Contract Acts; and
  9. Terminating the Essential Air Service Program ($57 million, discretionary).
  • Stop funding research that directly benefits private industry, by ending or shutting down:
  1. The Advanced Technology Program (2004 spending: $195 million, discretionary);
  2. The Manufacturing Extension Partnerships ($40 million, discretionary);
  3. The Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service ($1,082 million, discretionary);
  4. The Agricultural Research Service ($1,179 million, discretionary); and
  5. The Department of Energy research grants that displace private funding.
  • Enact user fees that recover all the costs of programs with identifiable users, such as:
  1. Requiring agribusinesses and farmers to assume the full cost of their crop insurance coverage (2004 spending: $3,965 million, mandatory); and
  2. Imposing user fees on commodity futures and options contract transactions to help finance the Commodity Futures Trading Commission ($91 million, discretionary).
  • Reform other programs targeted to the wrong recipients by:
  1. Restricting federal housing assistance to those with the greatest need and requiring able-bodied, non-elderly recipients to engage in work-related activities;
  2. No longer providing substantially more federal aid to Howard University than is provided to other private universities;
  3. Limiting Congress's franking privilege to non-election years to prevent taxpayer funding of campaign mailings; and
  4. Enforcing current laws limiting School Lunch program eligibility to low-income families.

GUIDELINE #7: Consolidate duplicative and contradictory programs.

Government's layering of new programs on top of old ones inherently creates duplication. Having several agencies perform similar duties is wasteful and confuses program beneficiaries who must navigate each program's distinct rules and requirements.

Some overlap is inevitable because some agencies are defined by whom they serve (e.g., veterans, Native Americans, urbanites, and rural families), while others are defined by what they provide (e.g., housing, education, health care, and economic development). When these agencies' constituencies overlap, as in veterans housing or rural economic development, each relevant agency will often have its own program. With 342 separate economic development programs, the federal government needs to make consolidation a priority.


Consolidating duplicative programs will save money and improve government service. Merging related block grants will give states more flexibility to target their funds. The new Department of Homeland Security provides one example of a successful consolidation of separate agencies and programs. A recently announced consolidation of the 22 different federal payroll systems into just two will save $1.2 billion over the next decade. At the state level, governors such as Virginia's Mark Warner (D) are proposing consolidations that will save hundreds of millions of dollars.

Except for those that should be eliminated altogether, Congress should consolidate the following sets28 of programs:

  • 342 economic development programs;
  • 130 programs serving the disabled;
  • 130 programs serving at-risk youth;
  • 90 early childhood development programs;
  • 75 programs funding international education, cultural, and training exchange activities;
  • 72 federal programs dedicated to assuring safe water;
  • 50 homeless assistance programs;
  • 45 federal agencies conducting federal criminal investigations;
  • 40 separate employment and training programs;
  • 28 rural development programs;
  • 27 teen pregnancy programs;
  • 26 small, extraneous K-12 school grant programs;
  • 23 agencies providing aid to the former Soviet republics;
  • 19 programs fighting substance abuse;
  • 17 rural water and waste-water programs in eight agencies;
  • 17 trade agencies monitoring 400 international trade agreements;
  • 12 food safety agencies;
  • 11 principal statistics agencies; and
  • 4 overlapping land management agencies.

GUIDELINE #8: Convert several remaining programs into vouchers.

Government programs should not be bloated bureaucracies that shepherd recipients into one-size-fits-all programs. Voucher programs, which allow individuals to purchase goods and services on the open market rather than receiving them from the government, have two distinct advantages:

  • Choice. Instead of forcing program recipients to take what a bureaucracy provides, vouchers allow them to shop around and find the goods and services that fit their needs.
  • Efficiency. Providing health insurance or housing vouchers is much less costly to government than the construction and maintenance of government-owned hospitals or housing. Competition among private firms for vouchers would bring about lower prices than government monopolies.

Some policymakers believe that low-income individuals cannot be trusted to make intelligent economic decisions with their vouchers, condescendingly implying that government employees know best how to run the lives of poor families. Those worrying that private markets could not accommodate the influx of voucher-wielding families fail to recognize that vouchers create markets by strengthening demand and thereby inducing new supply.

Food stamps provide the model for a successful voucher program.29 Instead of building a bureaucracy to grow and distribute government food to low-income families, the program simply provides families with vouchers to purchase food themselves. Housing vouchers that subsidize private rent costs have proven better for low-income families than dilapidated, dangerous public housing. Most child-care programs subsidize the private facilities that parents choose instead of forcing them into government-run facilities. Federal student loan programs exist as a type of education vouchers.

Vouchers can provide choice without bureaucracy in many other areas. Medicare and Medicaid could be made more like the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), in which federal employees choose between competing private health plans with the federal government subsidizing the premium. More public housing programs can be replaced with rent vouchers.

GUIDELINE #9: Terminate programs rather than trimming them or phasing them out.

Budget cutters often commit the tactical error of settling for small reductions or lengthy phaseouts of obsolete programs instead of immediately terminating them. They mistakenly believe that securing small program reductions now will allow them to come back and cut the program more next time.

But leaving obsolete programs in place simply creates an opportunity for future Congresses to restore funding. Furthermore, retaining the programs leaves the bureaucracy in place and allows it to enlist interest groups in a counteroffensive against spending reductions. The old line that "those attacking the throne had better kill the king on the first shot" applies to government programs as well.

In the 1980s, President Reagan successfully terminated only 12 of the 94 programs he proposed be eliminated. Congress would often block the terminations by negotiating slight reductions and lengthy phaseouts, waiting a few years for the President's focus to shift elsewhere and then restoring the programs to their original funding.30 Similarly, Members of the 104th Congress who proposed ending federal subsidies to programs such as AmeriCorps and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were persuaded to settle for slight spending reductions and a promise to cut more later, and the budgets of those programs have since rebounded to all-time highs.

One must never assume that spending reductions today will be followed up with additional reductions later. Retaining a program means retaining a bureaucracy dedicated to self-preservation, interest groups dedicated to aiding the bureaucracy, and a budget line item to which Congress can easily attach a larger number next year.

GUIDELINE #10: Utilize the "ideas industry" for specific proposals.

Those seeking specific proposals to reduce wasteful spending have several options available:

  • The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) periodically releases a Budget Options book containing more than 200 specific reforms that would reduce more than $100 billion in wasteful spending, complete with justifications and savings estimates. (See Appendix 3.)
  • The General Accounting Office (GAO) conducts hundreds of studies each year on wasteful and underperforming federal programs. The GAO also often releases a Budgetary Implications of Selected GAO Work for the current fiscal year, which is a book similar to CBO's Budget Options, detailing hundreds of specific, implementable ways to reduce waste.
  • The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) requires agencies to lay out specific multi-year goals to improve performance and reduce waste and report regularly on their progress toward these goals. Together with Inspector General (IG) reports, GPRA reports show which programs are failing in their missions.
  • Think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and Citizens Against Government Waste release hundreds of studies each year showing how to save taxpayer dollars.

The President should try to eliminate wasteful programs in his budget. Legislators should also examine every line item in the President's budget appendix and terminate programs that lack sufficient explanations or justifications.


Difficult times present opportunities for leaders to chart a new course. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt reduced non-defense spending by 36 percent to save resources. Policymakers funded the Korean War by immediately reducing non-defense spending by 25 percent. Those spending cuts required difficult choices, and lawmakers rose to the challenge.

In 2004, bold steps are again needed to rein in spending. The choices will be as difficult as those of the past, but that is what budgets are about--setting priorities. Congress and the President should seize this opportunity to refocus the federal government on the programs that matter most. Otherwise, the American people will face higher taxes, fewer jobs, less economic growth, and less effective government.

Brian M. Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Heritage Foundation research assistant Keith Miller contributed to this paper.









1. During the 108th Congress, Senator Sam Brownback (R−KS) introduced S. 837 and Representative Todd Tiahrt (R−KS) introduced H.R. 3213 to establish such a commission.

2. For more examples of pork-barrel spending, see Brian Riedl, "Another Omnibus Spending Bill Loaded with Pork," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 377, December 2, 2003, at See also Ronald Utt and Christopher Summers, "Can Congress Be Embarrassed into Ending Wasteful Pork-Barrel Spending?" Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1527, March 15, 2002, at

3. Where applicable, the 2004 outlays and classification--mandatory or discretionary--are listed for each program recommended for reform. Discretionary programs, such as defense, are appropriated annually by Congress. For most mandatory programs, such as Social Security, lawmakers set eligibility and benefit levels, and the spending totals are determined by the number of participants. Note that implementing a given recommendation may not immediately save this outlay amount, as reforms may take a few years to work through the system. Furthermore, privatization savings may depend on asset sales or whether the government contracts with the private sector to perform the privatized activity. Some recommendations overlap, so adding up all savings in this paper may overstate the potential savings of these proposals.

4. Many of these policy proposals, as well as others throughout this paper, were inspired by Scott Hodge and John Barry, "How Washington Wasted Your Money in the 1995 Appropriations Bills," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1008, October 28, 1994.

5. Unless otherwise noted, all amounts listed after each program refer to the estimated 2004 outlays. This is not necessarily the amount that would be immediately saved from enacting the recommendation. See footnote 3 for further details.

6. Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2005: Analytical Perspectives, pp. 105-106.

7. Daniel Kahneman, a winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics, refers to the tendency to value what we possess much more than what we do not possess as the "endowment effect." For example, people may be indifferent to what mug they purchase but, once owning it, will not be willing to sell that mug for any less than several times the price paid for it. The endowment effect explains why people will not part with personal items that they know they will never use. It also helps explain why people who are indifferent to creating a government program will nonetheless fight to preserve it later. The stress of giving up something (or terminating a program) is much greater than the joy of acquiring it (or creating a program). See Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetsch, and Richard Thaler, "The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias: Anomalies," Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1991), pp. 193-206.

8. For other terminated programs long since forgotten, see Ronald D. Utt, "A Progress Report on Closing Unneeded and Obsolete Independent Federal Agencies," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1072, March 13, 1996, at

9. The U.S. Geological Survey research functions could be transferred to the National Science Foundation.

10. Unless otherwise noted, all amounts listed after each program refer to the estimated 2004 outlays. This is not necessarily the amount that would be immediately saved from enacting the recommendation. See footnote 3 for further details.

11. Programs that collect revenues (such as loan repayments, fees, or money from product sales) can occasionally make a profit, or have "negative spending levels." These negative spending levels are often rare occurrences and do not mask that program's long-term cost.

12. Unless otherwise noted, all amounts listed after each program refer to the estimated 2004 outlays. This is not necessarily the amount that would be immediately saved from enacting the recommendation. See footnote 3 for further details.

13. At a minimum, Congress should end new enrollments in the program and not renew expiring contracts.

14. For the frequently updated numbers of federal advisory committees and commissions, see General Services Administration, Federal Advisory Committee Act database, at

15. See Paul Weinstein Jr., "A Return to Fiscal Responsibility: A Progressive Plan to Slash the Deficit," Progressive Policy Institute, February 4, 2004, pp. 8-9, at

16. The federal government calls this spending "unreconciled transactions." See U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2003 Financial Report of the United States Government, p. 126, at

17. Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2005, p. 51.

18. Janet Rehnquist, Inspector General, U.S. Department Health and Human Services, testimony before the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. Senate, June 12, 2002, at

19. "OMB Says U.S. Overpaid $20 Billion to Health Providers, Others, in 2002," Bureau of National Affairs Daily Report for Executives, June 3, 2002.

20. Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, Government at the Brink: Urgent Federal Government Management Problems Facing the Bush Administration, June 2001, p. 26.

21. Associated Press, "GAO Sting Targets Lax Student Loan Oversight," January 21, 2003.

22. Michael Grunwald, "How Corps Turned Doubt into a Lock," The Washington Post, September 13, 2002.

23. The 300 employees randomly sampled had charged $5.8 million in personal purchases over six months in late 2001 and early 2002. Applying that sample to all 55,000 USDA credit card holders over a full year calculates to $2.1 billion, or 3 percent of the USDA's 2002 budget. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Inspector General, Adequacy of Internal Controls over the Individually Billed Travel Card Program, Report No. 50601-05-HQ, June 19, 2003, at

24. U.S. General Accounting Office, Travel Cards: Air Force Management Focus Has Reduced Delinquencies, But Improvements in Controls Are Needed, GAO-03-298, December 20, 2002, p. 4, and Travel Cards: Control Weaknesses Leave Navy Vulnerable to Fraud and Abuse, testimony before Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, GAO-03-148T, October 8, 2002, p. 8.

25. Amounts in this section refer to the annual net losses from the waste. See Brian M. Riedl, "How Congress Can Achieve Savings of 1 Percent by Targeting Waste, Fraud, and Abuse," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1681, August 28, 2003, at

26. Unless otherwise noted, all amounts listed after each program refer to the estimated 2004 outlays. This is not necessarily the amount that would be immediately saved from enacting the recommendation. See footnote 3 for further details.

27. Data from the Environmental Working Group ( show that two-thirds of farm subsidies are granted to the largest 10 percent of agribusinesses and farmers. The $8 billion reflects two-thirds of the estimated total 2004 farm subsidies.

28. Examples are from Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, Government at the Brink, and U.S. General Accounting Office, Managing for Results: Using the Results Act to Address Mission Fragmentation and Program Overlap, GAO/AIMD-97-146, August 1997.

29. Although food stamp overpayments are a problem, the program still provides more choice and efficiency than it would if it were providing government-grown food.

30. See Scott Hodge and John Barry, "The 10 Percent `Revolution': House Spending Bills Fall Short of Overhauling Government," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1053, September 14, 1995.

| Executive Summary


Brian Riedl
Brian Riedl

Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute