Here’s a news flash: The New York Times thinks that Republican budget cuts are dangerous. Thus the headline in Monday’s edition: “G.O.P. Cuts Could Hit Tsunami Warning System, Foes Say.” The Times article gives the last word, literally, to Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, who warned, “In the next hurricane, flood, tornado or wildfire, lives will be lost and people will ask what went wrong. Congress’s cuts and the devastation to the well-being of our nation’s citizens are dangerously wrong.”
Yikes! Are Republicans really so irresponsible, to the point of near legislative manslaughter? Answer: no, they are not. But the GOP has been negligent in not spelling out exactly what needs to be cut, and not cut. And that negligence gave the Democrats a huge opening.
This recent tussle, between Democrats and Republicans over proposed small spending cuts at the Department of Commerce, should serve as a “teachable moment.” Moreover, this budgetary tussle illustrates the profound challenge that budget-cutting Republicans will face as they try even to chip away at federal spending.
In response to any proposed cut in spending, defenders of the Washington spending status quo immediately reach for the scariest possible result, citing that doomsday scenario as a way of justifying the entire budget, as is.
This kneejerk budget-protection technique is so well known that it has a recognized name: the “Washington Monument Syndrome.” That is, if the Interior Department, for example, were confronted with the slightest of budget cuts, the Secretary of Interior would gravely warn the would-be budget-cutters that if the proposed cuts go through, the Department would have no choice but to shut down the Washington Monument, or Mt. Rushmore, or any other popular and visible Interior Department property.
In other words, in response to any threat, the bureaucracy identifies and highlights the most outrageous, even dangerous, cutbacks, all to ward off the cutters. Sadly, inside the bureaucracy, rarely any thought is given to actually working with budget-cutters to trim fat, duplication, or even outright waste. And the mainstream media almost always side with the Democrats on these issues--except, of course, on defense budget cuts.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) has invoked his version of the Washington Monument Syndrome in the wake of the Japanese tsunami.
On Friday, just hours after the disaster in Japan, Rockefeller showed his opportunistic eagerness to protect any and all federal spending that falls within the domain of his turf--the Senate Commerce Committee, which he chairs. Even as flood waters still drenched Japan, Rockefeller issued a press release declaring that any of the proposed Republican cuts to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would risk American lives. NOAA is the parent agency to the National Weather Service (NWS), which operates sensor buoys in the ocean, serving as a distant early warning system for tsunamis and other weather threats.
Everybody’s for that sort of system, but the senior senator from West Virginia made it sound as if that’s all that NOAA does, so that any spending cuts would endanger lives. As Rockefeller said of the tsunami:
Congress must heed this cruel wakeup call and stop proposed cuts to essential NOAA prediction programs that would endanger lives. We must push to make the smart investments in our greatest minds and resources at NOAA so that we can better predict severe weather events and be prepared for the worst.
Media outlets dutifully picked up Rockefeller’s theme. The headline in Politico--which jumped on the story days ahead of the Times--read alarmingly: “In tsunami’s wake, Dems pounce on GOP’s call for NOAA cuts”; the piece echoed Rockefeller’s talking point that “cuts to essential NOAA prediction programs . . . would endanger lives.” CBS News declared that Republicans wanted to “slash” NOAA funding; “slash” is the favored verb of spending-cut opponents. And that same day, the Huffington Post added stern words from Dan Sobien, the head of the Weather Services employees organization, “If those [House] cuts go through there will be furloughs at both of the tsunami warning centers that protect the whole country and, in fact, the whole world.” Wow. Not just is America put at risk by GOP cuts, but the whole world.
OK, time for a little reality check. As Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for the House Republican Appropriations committee leadership, told Politico, Republican cuts were never intended to go after weather safety programs. Instead, Hing said, the Republicans proposed a seven percent across-the-board cut that allowed NOAA to decide which programs should be scaled back. (Others argue that the cuts are deeper than seven percent, but by any fair reckoning, there’s no reason that tsunami buoys would have to be cut.) And Hing volunteered that Republicans would work with the Obama administration to preserve NOAA’s “critical life-safety operations.” Indeed, even the Weather Service’s Sobien conceded that Republicans had no intention of cutting the ocean buoys that serve as America’s distant early warning system for tsunamis. In other words, Rockefeller was crying wolf.
Still, Republicans should heed the lesson: If they fail to spell out exactly what cuts they have in mind, opponents of those cuts will fill in the detail themselves. That’s happened with the NOAA spending cuts. Per the Washington Monument Syndrome playbook, Rockefeller and his allies in the federal bureaucracy were trying to wrap the entirety of NOAA’s budget in the mantle of tsunami warnings. Yet in fact, NOAA is a $5.5 billion agency, operating in all 50 states, managing a wide variety of programs, not just weather but also fisheries management and, of course, climate change research. Of that total, NWS is less than a sixth, just $900 million. Surely any big agency can survive a slight diet, although, of course, the affected agency might not agree.
In other words, House Republicans should have stipulated exactly what could not be cut in their budget-cutting bill. GOPers should have written, “no cuts to tsunami buoys.” Only such precise language would have stopped Rockefeller from playing the “endanger lives” card, by acting as if the only possible cuts were tsunami buoys.
Absent such precise language from Republicans, Democrats, bureaucrats, and the media were free to define Republican cuts in any way that they wished. And that meant, of course, cut buoys and ignore such obvious budget-cutting targets as climate change research.
Indeed, “global warming” has been a boom sector within NOAA; the Obama administration wants to spend another $737 million next year to “research” the issue. In comparison to these billions, the Republicans’ seven percent budget cut looks small--just $385 million. To put it another way, if the Obama administration had so wished, it could have absorbed the entire Republican cut just out of climate moneys. After all, last year the American people spoke loudly against such spending at the ballot box; they don’t want millions and billions spent to advance a “science” that they don’t believe in, and they are against policy “fixes”--such as raising gas prices--that come from green research. Yet for their part, the Obamans cling to “green” spending with the zeal of, well, Greens.
What’s more interesting is why Sen. Rockefeller, of coal-rich West Virginia, doesn’t seem interested in cutting spending aimed at putting coal mines out of business. Isn’t he supposed to be a champion of the coal industry? Or is he saying one thing to the folks back home and another thing to his friends and neighbors in Northwest DC? All we know for sure is that Rockefeller ignored these ill-spent hundreds of millions as he seized on tragedy in Japan to make us believe that any cut to NOAA could spell watery doom for Americans.
But here’s another question: Do we really need the National Weather Service to do all that it does? It’s nice that the NWS operates weather.gov, but there’s also a weather.com, operated by The Weather Channel (TWC). In 2008, NBC Universal bought the TWC for $3.5 billion; in other words, TWC is a valuable and profitable entity that doesn’t consume taxes--it pays taxes.
The point here is not that we should simply replace weather.gov with weather.com. Indeed, TWC relies on loads of information that comes from NWS. But experts could put the .gov and .com next to each other and find much duplication; surely that side-by-side comparison is worth doing in a time when we need to reduce federal expenditures.
Moreover, how many other weather services are out there? How ‘bout AccuWeather? In existence for half a century, AccuWeather brags:
We provide local forecasts for everywhere in the United States and over two million locations worldwide. We also provide our products and services to more than 175,000 paying customers in media, business, government and institutions. Our headquarters in State College, PA, is home to the greatest number of forecast meteorologists in one location anywhere in the world.
In other words, the for-profit--which means that like TWC, it pays taxes--AccuWeather is its own version of NWS. And there are many other private weather forecasters as well. Steve Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, now deputy mayor of New York City, has put forth what he calls “the yellow pages test.” That is, if he could find a government function being done in the private sector, as evidenced by an ad appearing in the Yellow Pages--or now, on Google--chances are it needn’t be done in the tax-consuming public sector.
Obviously any rejiggering of weather functions would have to be done carefully, so that nothing important--such as tsunami warnings--dropped through the cracks, but we have hardly exhausted the list of current weather resources.
The Pentagon has its own weather and satellite operations, dedicated to tracking the weather, all waiting--even if the military doesn’t know it yet--to be better networked into one coherent system. And what about those thousands of local TV stations around the United States? Public Broadcasting Service stations alone reach 96 percent of the populace; maybe being part of any early warning network would be a good non-political mission for PBS, for a change.
If the Obama administration and the Democrats wanted to, they could lead the effort to restructure the federal government so that it spent less and delivered better results. But they don’t want to. So it’s up to Republicans to try. The GOP seems to have the fervor to make cuts, but they also need the smarts to take advantage of the new thinking needed to sustain or even improve current systems.
So the GOP will have to learn a new and more difficult language. Instead of just saying “cut,” Republicans will have to learn how to say, “cut and replace with something better.” That second message is a lot more complicated. But if Republicans don’t learn those new words, and approach government-downsizing in a shrewder way, they will continue to be ambushed by Democrats, bureaucrats, and the MSM, all hiding behind the Washington Monument.
James P. Pinkerton is a writer, Fox News contributor and the editor/founder of SeriousMedicineStrategy.