BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON
When last we commiserated about the sex life of ducks, we questioned why taxpayers were being billed (billed—ducks—get it?) for million-dollar National Science Foundation (NSF) research into the corkscrew-like genital appendage on the female duck that deters the unwanted advances of the male.
The study, now in its eighth year, is just one of hundreds of taxpayer-funded projects that presumably hold the promise of scientific discovery and the eventual benefit to society worth the investment. And maybe that will turn out to be the case.
Though science projects are a budgetary breeding ground of questionable spending priorities and outright waste, there are others much worse.
Remember the Las Vegas retreat for General Service Administration employees? How about the Internal Revenue Service spending $49 million on conferences?
There’s a whole book on government waste by Sen. Tom Coburn that featured a $2 million federal grant to help finance a wine and culinary center in Washington State and $55,000 to a dairy company in New York for a new butter packaging machine.
They are small potatoes compared to what Uncle Sam spends trying to pick winners and losers in the American marketplace. We lost $521 million betting on solar energy company Solyndra and that much or more on other solar and wind power ventures.
Dare we even get into billion-dollar weapons systems the Pentagon doesn’t want or need? To add insult to taxpayer injury, last month Congress actually tried to instruct the Pentagon on how to buy tennis shoes.
The waste of tax dollars occurs for a lot of reasons: (a) lack of oversight; (b) political favoritism; (c) good intentions gone bad; (d) sloppy bookkeeping, and (e) what really bugs me, the inability of politicians and bureaucrats to exercise self-restraint when spending someone else’s money.
But there’s something deeper than that. When we spend millions on duck sex research with one hand and cut food stamps with the other, we have lost touch with some core values. This is not a debate about whether basic science is a legitimate governmental function—it is; this is a debate about priorities and how we judge what is of higher value and what isn’t.
Lawmakers have become obsessed with Federal spending. Some can’t spend enough; some can’t cut enough. But when it comes to reaching consensus on the underlying policy, public priorities, and the longer-term vision of who we are and where we want to go as a country, the public is shortchanged by their shortsightedness.
We need to get back to basics, starting with identifying the legitimate functions of government and then progressing outward to the government programs and services that we as a people decide we want and need, and we, as the instruments of self-government, can afford.
Spending is the second step in the process, not the first in the long road to reform.
Unfortunately, in politics, no one wants to take long trips. Everything is done at the last minute, with too little planning, too much speed, too little thought and too much political expediency. That’s where waste and inefficiency breed their offspring, like robotic squirrels and shrimp running on treadmills, two more NSF projects.
General consensus around the core is achievable—what the Constitution prescribes and what we have presumed from it: national defense; the conduct of international relations; personal safety and security, protection of individual freedoms, basic health care and housing; national infrastructure (such as transportation and the energy grid); and stewardship of our national resources.
We can all add or subtract from the list.
More difficult is the breakdown of the general to the specific, the trip from platitudes to practice. Congress, the President, the media and political extremists at both ends of the spectrum have made that conversation all but impossible. They have outlawed reason and common sense and replaced them with a mind-numbing addiction to winning partisan and ideological combat rather than governing.
You reach a point where you can’t fake it—governing–through another debt ceiling deadline, another failed appropriations process, a shot at tax reform, and one-sided, dead end solutions to food and nutrition, immigration, cyber-security and so many others.
What is essential government? It isn’t versions espoused by either libertarians or progressives.
Education and transportation are two good guinea pigs that give it definition.
Libertarians believe the Federal Government has no business injecting itself into education policy, and progressives believe changing circumstances require a dominant Federal role. What is essential? It is essential to preserve the role of the states and localities in providing for the education of our children, but it is also essential that our country is able to compete internationally, something we can’t do without a skilled and educated workforce. We can’t leave it to fifty states and 14,000 school districts to ensure our global competitiveness. Basic standards of competency are an essential Federal function, as would be ensuring that there is equity between the educational opportunity afforded a child in Mississippi and one in Connecticut. We had the debate over the relevance of the Department of Education thirty years ago. Let’s get over it.
Essential government dictates a Federal role in the nation’s transportation infrastructure. President Dwight Eisenhower, a conservative Republican who recognized the vital role of an interstate highway system, had it right. But he would probably take a jackhammer to Federal funding of bike paths, trolley cars, boulevard beautification, intra-city mass transit projects, small-town airport subsidies, and commercial development of projects like the Alexandria, VA, riverfront. He would focus Federal tax dollars on the 60,000 dilapidated bridges across America that continue to carry millions of unsuspecting at-risk families, bus drivers, truckers, and commuters. Maintaining the safety and economic viability of our nation’s bridges and highways is essential government.
Maybe it could be successfully argued that creating high-speed rail in key corridors around the country is essential government. I’d buy it. But we are spending billions on projects that are not essential and some that aren’t even desirable, and everyone in Washington knows it. So let’s realign our priorities.
Redefining essential government and how you drill down to it in each category of Federal activism would take several books.
And maybe, the concept of essential government is over-simplistic and even naïve. So what? It beats the hell out of what we’re doing now, which is…essentially…nothing.
So let’s quit talking about ducks and start talking turkey.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.