The Corner

Lawmakers’ Loyalty to Special Interests and Duplicate Federal Programs

USA Today has a piece today on a new GAO study that once again exposes the huge amount of duplicate programs and overlapping areas in the federal government. Here are some examples:

Among the 31 areas of duplicated spending, spelled out in a report by the Government Accountability Office obtained by USA TODAY:

•Government agencies are spending billions on new mapping data — without checking whether some other government agency already has maps they could use.

•At least 23 different federal agencies run hundreds of programs to support renewable energy.

•Each branch of the armed services is developing its own camouflage uniforms without sharing them with other services.

The report, to be released today at a House Oversight Committee hearing, caps a three-year effort to track wasteful government spending.

 ”American taxpayers cannot afford to keep buying the same service twice,” said Rep.Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, in a statement prepared for today’s hearing.

Overall, GAO found 162 areas where agencies are duplicating efforts, at a cost of billions of dollars.

The cost is unclear but it is likely large. The administration’s budget is supposed to propose some $25 billion in savings in 2014 from consolidation.

But who wants to bet that this report, as well as the president’s request will be ignored? If you search the web for “duplicate federal programs” you will find a large number of stories on this issue going back many years. There is even a story by USA Today in 2012 on last year’s GAO report. Here is a tidbit:

A report delivered to Congress Tuesday lays out those examples among 32 areas where multiple government programs do similar work. The Government Accountability Office says the government might save tens of billions of dollars simply by eliminating duplicate and overlapping federal programs.

According to Lexus Nexus Academic, USA Today ran some 20 stories on duplicate programs and program redundancies and such since 1994, which I am happy to share if you are interested. But the newspaper isn’t alone. Here is the Wall Street Journal reporting on the 2011 GAO report: #more# 

A report from the nonpartisan GAO, to be released Tuesday, compiles a list of redundant and potentially ineffective federal programs, and it could serve as a template for lawmakers in both parties as they move to cut federal spending and consolidate programs to reduce the deficit. Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), who pushed for the report, estimated it identifies between $100 billion and $200 billion in duplicative spending. The GAO didn’t put a specific figure on the spending overlap.

And I could go on and on. The question then is why, in the face of so much evidence, Congress wouldn’t pull the trigger and cancel all these programs? Because Congress’s loyalty to the special-interest groups who are benefiting from this money is often deeper than its loyalty to taxpayers, no matter what the costs are. The bureaucrats in the agencies that administer these duplicate programs are also an interest group with strong incentives to fight against ending the funding. 

Unfortunately, the problem goes beyond the funding of duplicate federal programs. The federal government also funds many programs that duplicate functions performed by state governments and the private sector, wasting taxpayer money and damaging the overall economy. (Tim Carney has one fitting example of such waste this morning.)

This isn’t new. Many years ago, economist James Buchanan showed that political leaders rarely have the broad public interest in mind when they consider policy issues. This is true at the federal, state, and local levels. You should read this excellent piece by George Will back in February about Buchanan’s legacy. Will concludes:

The political class is incorrigible because it is composed of — let us say the worst — human beings. They respond to incentives of self-interest. Their acquisitiveness is not for money but for the currency of power, which they act to retain and enlarge. This class can be constrained, if at all, not by exhorting them to become disinterested but by binding them with a constitutional amendment.

I have reservations about a balanced-budget amendment, only because I suspect that the politicians designing it will include many loopholes to make sure that they can get around it. But my reservations are in practice rather than in principle. Putting aside the unwillingness of lawmakers to tie their own hands for a second, I like the balanced-budget amendment proposed by Representative Justin Amash.  

Balanced-budget amendment or not, there is a real need to reduce the scope and size of the federal government. Among other things that means getting rid of all subsidies to the private sector, returning state functions to the states and private functions to the private sector, and reforming entitlement spending. Once we do that, duplicate federal programs are likely to be a thing of the past. If we don’t, you can count on many other USA Today stories being written about them. 

Veronique de Rugy — Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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