In his State of the Union Address earlier this year, President Bush joined budget reformers in urging the adoption of the line-item veto as a way of limiting the inexorable growth of federal spending. Anyone familiar with the history of budget reform knows this well-intentioned effort is doomed to failure. If Congress is serious about cutting spending, it should represent taxpayers in budget decisions.
For over 30 years, reformers have been trying to hold the line on spending. In 1974, the solution was thought to be the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act. In 1985, salvation was supposed to come in the form of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act. Over the years, lawmakers have proposed practically every conceivable legal device to cut, cap, limit, or freeze spending. Yet from major entitlements to petty boondoggles, programs continue to expand.
Why do these efforts to restrain spending fail? The answer is simple: most congressmen believe that spending programs are beneficial and necessary. This may come as a surprise to outsiders, who imagine that congressmen can recognize the flaws in government agencies, but are somehow corrupted to vote for wasteful programs against their better judgment. But lawmakers live in a cocoon of pro-spending propaganda, which lulls them into believing worthless programs are worthy.
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM is that it is very costly to communicate with Congress. Civics books say that everyone has the right to be heard in a democracy, but the truth is that it takes time and effort to reach a congressman to advance a point of view. Suppose you hear of a spending program that seems questionable. Take, for example, the State Nutrition Action Plans programs of the Food and Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture. You, the taxpayer, discover that it shells out $500 million to state bureaucracies to support vaguely defined programs and conferences in “nutrition education.” You think it’s a boondoggle, and you wish government would stop spending your money on it, but can you afford to take the trouble to persuade lawmakers to stop funding it?
Writing a letter isn’t good enough. It would be only one of thousands of missives that aides file away and forget (after sending you the computer-generated response that says how sincerely the congressman appreciates your point of view). To get your point across, you are going to have to take a trip to Washington to meet with lawmakers personally. Well, that’s going to take days and days, and thousands of dollars. And what are you going to tell the lawmakers when you see them? You have to have facts and figures to back up your point. That means you have to research the program, which will require more time and effort on your part.
Before you undertake this lobbying project, you ask yourself what you stand to gain from it. Let’s say you pay $10,000 a year in federal taxes. That means that this $500 million program costs you $1.67. There’s no self-interest here.
Let’s suppose you are an idealist, and want to end wasteful spending in order to protect the economic health of the country. Again, the problem of scale defeats you. Even if this program were eliminated, it would reduce federal spending by only 0.017% — and therefore have no noticeable effect on the nation’s economy. You reach the conclusion, then, that there is no motive, selfish or idealistic, for you to lobby against a run-of-the-mill spending program. You fall back on your couch in frustration.
Now consider what the supporters of spending programs are doing. These include administrators whose incomes, status, and careers depend on their programs. Eliminating their programs would cost them not a mere $1.67 but their jobs! Hence, they have an enormous personal financial interest in lobbying for the continuation of their programs. Furthermore, administrators don’t have to fund their lobbying activities out of their own pockets. Everything they do to promote their programs — meeting with congressmen, preparing flattering reports and press releases, organizing supporters — is funded by taxpayers.
The second contingent of program supporters is the lobbyists hired by those who get tax-funded payments, subsidies, and contracts. They too have vested financial and professional interests in maintaining and expanding spending. And, just like the administrators, the lobbyists make no personal sacrifices in lobbying for higher spending. Public relations and propaganda are what they get paid for.
What would happen, then, if someone proposed eliminating a program like the State Nutrition Action Plans? Congressmen would hear from scores of authoritative, well-connected administrators and lobbyists who have weeks of taxpayer-funded time available to defend it. And because there is little money to be made in protecting the public interest, no capable, sophisticated lobbyist would advance the taxpayer’s position that the program was unnecessary.
TO CORRECT THIS IMBALANCE, Congress itself should create an Office of Taxpayer Advocacy charged with the specific mission of representing the taxpayer interest in opposing unwise or unnecessary spending. This agency could employ thousands of researchers to investigate ineffective and unnecessary programs and highlight the damage done by the spending of tax dollars. It could establish a hotline for taxpayers to call about instances of waste and abuse. It could employ writers and public relations specialists to publicize the costs of spending proposals, to ensure that Congress, the media, and the public heard anti-spending arguments.
If administrators and lobbyists believe their programs are as valuable as they say, they should welcome scrutiny and feel confident that they will be able to refute their critics. The media should be happy to have voices on both sides of spending questions. Congress itself should embrace the idea. Most lawmakers know they are being bombarded by the self-interested sales pitches of spending advocates. They know they need to hear anti-spending arguments in order to make responsible decisions.
How much might such an office cost? With a staff of about 5,000, it would cost about $500,000,000 — 0.017% of the federal budget. Congress could pay for it by abolishing any one of dozens of questionable programs of equal size.
The creation of an Office of Taxpayer Advocacy would represent a revolutionary change. Congress would create, for the first time, a general interest lobby to counterbalance all the special interest lobbies it has created with its spending largesse. By representing the interests of American taxpayers in reality rather than rhetoric, Congress could commit itself to making wiser decisions, and put a brake on the reckless spending that threatens the economy.
James L. Payne has taught political science at Yale, Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins, and Texas A&M University. He is the author of The Culture of Spending: Why Congress Spends beyond Our Means (ICS Press 1991). This article is drawn from his report, Budgeting in Neverland: Irrational Policymaking in the U.S. Congress, just released by the Cato Institute.