Maybe our undisciplined government spending isn’t the problem; maybe it’s our stultifying legal system. That has been the message of Philip Howard for years. The author of “The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America” and founder of bipartisan reform coalition Common Good wants to banish out-of-date regulations that drive up costs and perpetuate senseless programs. Today, with legislators scrambling for ways to bring order to our financial house, perhaps his call for legal reform will pierce the cacophony of squabbling interest groups and taxpayers.
The sequester has focused the nation’s attention on how we spend our tax dollars. The Obama administration has portrayed every dollar spent as crucial; one penny less and planes will fall from the skies. At the same time, GOP Senator Tom Coburn and others have publicized an endless stream of moronic programs that give taxpayers heartburn.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. There are crucial programs and there are many examples of waste. The latter often spring from laws and regulations written to address past problems but which remain on the books far beyond their useful lives. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial said that the Supreme Court is reviewing a Great Depression program aimed at stabilizing raisin prices. The law mandates that regulators set prices by governing supply, forcing growers to sell to the government at a steep discount – even today. How much are we spending to maintain the Raisin Administrative Committee? Do growers need price supports? Nobody knows; that’s the point.
According to recent polling commissioned by Common Good, 78 percent of Americans think that budget deficits “could be reduced substantially if we simplified government rules, bureaucracies and programs.” Nine out of ten people think it makes sense to review all government regulations at least every ten years to make sure they still work. That effort to simplify our government (and our lives) is rated a “high national priority” by 85 percent of the country.
Even President Obama has from time to time championed cutting the web of rules and regulations that enslaves our lives. In his 2011 State of the Union address, the president drew laughs from noting, “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked." He promised to “give [voters] a government that's more competent and more efficient.”
What did his efforts produce? His 2013 budget did indeed include proposed discretionary cuts amounting to $7.9 billion, consolidations of agency functions yielding $395 million and savings of $159 million. Total discretionary savings? $8.5 billion. Including mandated cuts, the total swells to $24 billion – less than one percent of outlays. Not enough to move the needle.
Cleaning up the government is hard not just because it is vast, but because it is tangled up in layer upon layer of antiquated laws – laws that should be periodically reviewed and simplified. Howard is working on a new book in which he calls for a constitutional requirement that all regulations with budgetary consequences contain a sunset provision.
He notes that we are the only developed country that does not have a system to clean up laws. “We’ve become like crazy hoarders,” he says – the Collier Brothers of obsolete legislation. The discipline to review and reinvent our laws and rules simply does not exist. “The abdication of responsibility by Congress is a national scandal,” he fumes.
He has a point. Michael Walsh recently reported in the New York Post that the government is paying survivor benefits to two descendants of Civil War vets, and 10 relatives of Spanish-American War participants. Taxpayers are still supporting the 1,000 employees and $578 million budget of the Rural Utilities Service, originally founded to make sure Americans living in the sticks had access to electricity.
These are shocking souvenirs of bygone times – that are still wasting taxpayer money – and that should have been scrubbed from the books decades ago. Mr. Howard cites other examples, such as the farm subsidies that sprang out of the terrible drought of the 1930s, when so many farmers went bust – but that are now paying millions to millionaires. Or, the Davis Bacon Act of 1931, enacted to boost depressed wages during the Great Depression. Today, according to the Heritage Foundation, requirements of that bill force our beleaguered federal government to systematically overpay contractors.
“Look at the Special Ed bill,” says Howard. “No one ever intended when that bill passed in the 1970s for special ed to consume over 20 percent of our K-12 budgets for the tiny percentage that needs special help.” Don’t get him started on ethanol subsidies.
Americans hopeful of real progress in tackling our country’s budget issues bemoan that instead of dismantling our burdensome outdated laws, Congress and President Obama are adding to the mess. Obamacare alone, now weighing in at 20,000 pages of new regulations, has spawned a cottage industry of companies promising to guide small businesses through the thicket.
Americans looking for budget sanity were earlier let down by the failure of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which endorsed strong measures to balance our country’s books. That the commission’s suggestions came to naught was no surprise to Mr. Howard. As he points out, the forming of an advisory body is determined by the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act, which mandates representation by all interested parties – guaranteeing failure. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.