A Government Accountability Office report on duplicative federal programs is prima facie evidence that the government is a bloated mess. For example, there are 82 federal programs involved in teacher quality, 80 programs involved in economic development, and over 100 programs involved in surface transportation.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) summed it up best in his press release on the GAO report:
This report confirms what most Americans assume about their government. We are spending trillions of dollars every year and nobody knows what we are doing. The executive branch doesn’t know. The congressional branch doesn’t know. Nobody knows.
Nobody knows because no human being could possibly keep sufficient tabs on thousands of programs in a $3.8 trillion federal budget. Compounding the problem is the fact that policymakers devote much of their time to fundraising, campaigning, and other distracting activities.
The report’s takeaway, therefore, should be that the federal government’s scope needs to be drastically curtailed. Unfortunately, a typical response to the report has been to cite it as further evidence that policymakers must “eliminate waste” and “make government more efficient.” Coburn says “This report also shows we could save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars every year without cutting services. And, in many cases, smart consolidations will improve service.”
No, no, no.
Most of the “services” discussed in the report need to be eliminated, not consolidated. Turning 82 teacher quality programs into, say, 10 doesn’t change the fact that the federal government should not be involved in education in the first place. (Not to mention that the federal government’s involvement in education has been a failure.)
Throughout the decades, numerous efforts have been undertaken to clean up the federal bureaucracy (e.g., Hoover Commission, Grace Commission, and Al Gore’s “Reinventing Government”). None of these house cleaning endeavors curbed the federal government’s expansion, let alone tamed the bureaucratic wilds.
James Madison wrote in Federalist 45 that the powers delegated to the federal government by the Constitution “are few and defined.” However, the federal government gradually assumed powers that are now many and undefined. Excessive bureaucracy is a natural, and inevitable, result. Thus, those policymakers who are sincerely concerned with bureaucratic duplication and waste should focus their efforts on reinstituting limits on the government’s capacity to spend. Policymakers who pretend otherwise are just wasting their time — and that of taxpayers.