Sacred Cows, Third Rails, and the Scope of Government

by Peter Kirsanow

Paul Ryan has issued a plan that includes some entitlement reform and (for the moment) he hasn’t been burned to a crisp. Is this an indication that there are fewer third rails now in American politics?

The debate over cutting federal spending has so far concentrated on shrinking the size of the federal government, not necessarily its scope. Even if Republicans prevail in cutting some spending and reforming entitlements, the federal government will still be involved in a wide swath of American life.

There really hasn’t been a serious discussion (outside of votes on funding for NPR and Planned Parenthood) of shrinking the breadth of governmental spending, activity, and involvement. Continued failure to do so would be a serious substantive and strategic error.

Merely reducing spending in certain areas while leaving the departments, agencies, and programs intact ensures that those departments, agencies, and programs will soon resume growing and even metastasizing. It’s the Washington way. After all, every department, agency, and program has a constituency. Some politician(s) will be sure to pander to them.

Republicans need to issue a comprehensive and detailed plan addressing the elimination or consolidation of certain federal departments, agencies, and programs. At some point this will have to be part of the budget debate.

Are cabinet-level departments inviolate? Is, for example, the Department of Energy sacrosanct? Given that it was created in 1977 (when we imported 35 percent of our oil) in response to the mid-Seventies oil crisis and that we now import 65 percent of our oil, is the department fulfilling its mission? Can’t some of its more essential functions be privatized or transferred to other departments or agencies?   

Clearly, any discussion concerning the elimination or consolidation of entire departments, agencies, and programs will be politically treacherous. The proposals will be demagogued and proponents attacked. Republicans must  approach this wisely. But it doesn’t require Churchillian rhetorical agility to ask why a bureaucrat in Washington should be dictating what light bulbs we buy, what laundry detergent we use and what Susie may say in class, especially when the federal government isn’t doing a sterling job tending to many of the core functions of government. And, by the way, we’re out of money. Time to prioritize.

Candidate Barack Obama said he wanted to fundamentally transform America. So far, all he’s done is fundamentally enlarge the government. Republicans need to limit its growth both vertically and laterally.

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