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The federal empire: Who made this mess, anyway?

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 1, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
March 1, 2011 5:32 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

If there’s one agency of the federal government that distinguishes itself in the stewardship of tax money, it’s the Government Accountability Office.

At the direction of Congress – good move, lawmakers – the nonpartisan GAO has just delivered its first annual report on duplication and other inefficiencies in the far-flung federal empire. Much of the information has long been public, but now for the first time we have a single, 340-page that tells the story in all its baroque detail.

It would take this entire page to summarize the overlaps and fragmentation the GAO found in the nation’s mushroom farm of federal programs. A few examples:

• Congress doubled down last year on its politically driven efforts to prop up the dubious ethanol industry by giving it $5.4 billion-a-year worth of tax credits. The GAO said the federal fuel standard already guarantees a market for farm-state ethanol producers; the annual cost of this needless giveaway is projected to rise to $6.75 billion a year in 2015.

• The U.S. Department of Transportation operates a tangle of 100 different programs to support highways, transit, rail and safety. GAO’s analysis: “This variety of approaches and structures did not result from a specific rationale or plan, but rather an agglomeration of policies and programs established over half a century without a well-defined overall vision …”

Imagine a DOT built from scratch and designed for 21st century transportation needs. It would look nothing remotely like the DOT we have.

• Same goes for the government’s oversight of food safety. When the GAO dissected last year’s recall of 500 million potentially salmonella-contaminated eggs, it found a masterpiece of fractured, overlapping programs.

The Food and Drug Administration is supposed to ensure that chicken eggs are “safe, wholesome, and properly labeled” while a division of the Department of Agriculture “is responsible for the safety of eggs processed into egg products.”

Another Agriculture agency sets quality standards but doesn’t test eggs for microbes. Yet another Agriculture agency oversees the health of chicks sent to egg farms, but the FDA is responsible for the safety of the food these chicks eat.

Fifteen agencies in all each own some piece of the food-safety puzzle.
Perhaps there should be more than one agency. But 15? And certainly the job shouldn’t be parceled out between two Cabinet-level departments.

Every component of the federal government has some reason for being there. Too often, though, the reason has to do with quiet lobbying, bureaucratic turf feuds or just plain inertia.

Tens of billions, maybe hundreds of billions, could be saved by cleaning the mess up – and it’s not as if the country doesn’t need the money. Congress ordered this report; it ought to act on it.

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