Friday, March 24, 2006

Budget Busting: Answering Drum and Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan has opened up a serious inquiry to all his readers as part of his running debate with Kevin Drum about cuts. Well, I have a couple. And not least of which because I'm a federal employee and believe that a lot of these cuts would make my life easier, and some other ones would make a hell of a lot of other people's lives easier too: I emailed him the following suggestions:
First I would recommend cutting OPM (Office of Personnel Management) out entirely. They enforce the currently deeply problematic personnel system based upon the antiquated general schedule personnel and rating system for federal employees. This would cut a lot of money and offer the agencies chances to set their own personnel hiring practices (right now they all already have their own HR departments anyway). That would be about $256 million in savings. Overall, you probably couldn't cut all of that because some of OPM's mission is paying out 99 billion in benefits to all federal employees (though, again, every agency has it's own payroll system so this could probably be reduced).

Then I would recommend cutting out GSA. You can save $22.4 billion dollars per year that is (arguably) not funded out of Congressional appropriation, but is collected as fees from all other federal agencies. These fees are because GSA holds a monopoly as landlord (and lease negotiator) for all federal agencies and charges them all rent. Usually this is perceived as above market rent. So while the 22.4 billion wouldn't go because the agencies would still have to pay something, they would probably be paying much lower in the commercial marketplace. Other functions of GSA, like contracting, can be devolved to the agencies who have their own contracting shops also anyway.

If you want to get really libertarian, I would also recommend cutting the two most useless Agencies in the world: the Federal Trade Commission ($223 million) and the Federal Communications Commission ($303 million), then use antitrust to deal with any monopolies that may arise in a non-regulated environment. Also, the SEC would still be around in that situation.

These numbers come from here and GSA's Congressional Justification for spending its treasury of agency fees. Obviously these, like so many critical budgets cuts, would be political unpalatable, but it's very questionable that any of these agencies do ANYONE any good. I also recommended some more deep and political controversial ones, like Missile Defense at $9.3 Billion, Community Development Block Grants aka Local Corruption Funds at $6.7 Billion, the new Virginia class submarine (why not stick with Seawolves, the older ones. . .they're actually cheaper) at $2.6 Billion EACH, and Ethanol Subsidies at $2 billion. That's a lot of money, and also mostly obtained from OMB's website and Missile Defense's website. These are all of what I would call "questionable utility." Would it be great to have missile shields and fancy new submarines? Yeah. But do we need them and can we afford them in a time of skyrocketing deficits? No. And anyone who wants to defend Ethanol and Block Grants has some splainin to do.

The problem with this debate is that liberals and conservatives talk past each other. Liberals look at cutting these budgets by trying to argue something about the need for a program or set of agencies that does something like that. What they fail to talk about are whether those agencies meet any cost-benefits test or those programs work at all. Sure "Community Development Block Grants" sounds great, and you want to defend the existence of such a thing, but the reality is they don't really help people very much, especially considering the levels of money involved. Conservatives, like Sullivan (and me here) also want to get out of the knives and gesture at huge chunks of the bureaucracy to chop down, when really they should be focusing on things on a program-by-program basis of what makes sense and what went wrong. That's how Clinton and Gingrich were able to compromise with one another and cut so much of the federal budget in the 90s. We can do it again, but not with the animosity we have now. And not with the harsh partisanship and ham-handedness that is keeping both sides from really looking at things with any detail and attention.