Published March 01, 2011
We are used to hearing about fraud and government programs that fail to accomplish their goals. It now appears that yet another category might be important: duplication. Hundreds of major government programs have been discovered to duplicate what other government programs are doing. If we are to believe a new Government Accountability Office report, consolidation of programs could easily save up to $200 billion over the next decade.
Call it "press release government." For politicians, the best way to be seen as being actively involved and to viewed as caring about a problem is to set up a new government program and then claim credit for it. It doesn't seem to matter if there are already 17 other programs that help people get nutritious food or 79 other programs to provide transportation for the disadvantaged, adding another program shows that the politician really cares. It is the equivalent of building on another living room to a house when there are already several of them.
Creating new additional government programs spread across different government agencies also means that additional congressional committees can try claiming oversight. Government housing programs are spread across every place from the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health & Human Services, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Interior, Department of Labor, Federal Housing Finance Board, Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Thus, when there is a housing problem, congressmen and Senators from a range of different committees can claim legitimate reasons to run before the television cameras and hold committee hearings.
These duplications create needless administrative duplication and thus higher costs. The GAO report notes: "administrative costs . . . account for approximately a tenth to more than a quarter of total costs among the largest of these programs." Administrative costs can be much higher for smaller programs. In addition, the duplication requires the same problems be studied over and over again each of the different departments, with administrative staff making decisions that might contradict those of other agencies.
Even worse, the plethora of programs means that few programs are evaluated to check whether they are doing the job they were created to do. Page after page of the GAO study has statements such as: "Only five of the 47 job training and employment programs GAO surveyed had an impact study completed since 2004 to evaluate whether outcomes (i.e., such as program participants actually securing a job) resulted from the program and not another cause. About half the programs had no performance review since 2004. As a result, GAO finds ―little is known about the effectiveness of most programs." Or, for domestic food assistance programs, the GAO writes: "Little is known about the effectiveness of [11 of the 18 programs] because they have not been well studied."
Part of the problem is that once a program is adopted, it is there forever, and expenditures are assumed to continue along certain trends. An alternative approach is what is called Zero Based Budgeting, where each year spending for the coming year is evaluated from scratch. Rather than looking at each program in isolation, Congress could focus on the problems that they want addressed.
With the federal government projected to run a $1.65 trillion deficit this year and spending a projected $3.82 trillion, the debate in Washington has ranged from House Republicans wanting a tiny $61 billion cut in spending to Democrats and the Obama administration calling such cuts ”extreme" and that they will cuts "undermine and damage our capacity to create jobs and expand the economy."
Getting rid of bureaucratic duplication is waste that should be hard to defend for anyone other than politicians who want to protect their turf. Even eliminating the most obvious duplicative programs won't really dent the trillion plus deficits during the Obama administration, but if they can't cut this, they won't be able to cut anything.
John R. Lott, Jr. is a FoxNews.com contributor. He is an economist and author of "More Guns, Less Crime” (University of Chicago Press, 2010).