I had the privilege of ghost-editing Newt Gingrich’s To Renew America after Republicans won both Houses of Congress in 1994 and remember it as a very exciting time. Newt was full of ideas and we spent about three months pulling them out of him for the book.
Few people remember that the Contract for America, which was the leadership’s main accomplishment, was actually a very non-controversial document, in the sense that the GOP had only chosen provisions that polled better than 60 percent in public surveys. They included balancing the federal budget, reducing crime, reforming welfare, achieving tort reform, outlawing unfunded federal mandates, reining in regulation, taking U.S. troops out of the jurisdiction of the UN, and imposing 12-year term limits on Congress.
A surprising number of the provisions were accomplished, in spirit if not in the letter of the law. The main provisions of the proposed anti-crime bill, the “Safe Streets Act,” were “truth in sentencing,” a stronger death penalty, and a “good faith” exemption to the exclusionary rule. All of these were achieved to some degree but, more important, Rudy Giuliani was beginning to implement “broken windows” policing in New York City. Crime rates plummeted, first in New York, then everywhere else, and have been falling ever since. The District of Columbia, for example, just experienced its lowest number of homicides since 1963. The situation has changed so much that it is now hard to remember crime was the #2 concern in the Contract, after balancing the budget.
Welfare reform worked much the same way. It was enacted very nearly as described in the Contract’s “Personal Responsibility Act” and became the greatest accomplishment of the Clinton-Gingrich era. The 40-year disgrace of subsidizing illegitimacy ended and poverty rates fell steadily for over a decade before rising again in the current recession.
Then as now, however, the #1 concern was controlling federal spending. A constitutional amendment for a balanced budget never materialized but spending growth did slow enough so that we actually achieved a budget surplus from 1998-2001 — until 9/11 and the subsequent wars threw everything out of whack again. The line-item veto proposed in the Contract was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton, who relished his new-found power over spending. But it was tragically overturned in a lawsuit by the same New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who didn’t like the way it was cutting into New York’s handouts. The Supreme Court ruled it would require a constitutional amendment to satisfy the “presentments” clause. Soon the era of undisciplined spending returned.
Buried in the second half of To Renew America — called “40 Great Ideas for the New Congress” — was an idea that would accomplish much the same thing, perhaps even more efficiently. It has always stuck in my mind. The idea is based very solidly on systems theory and the way in which complex organisms set up self-regulating mechanisms in nature.
Newt suggested creating an “Office for Budget Reduction” or “Federal Office of Austerity” that would be empowered to comb other federal agencies looking for places to cut spending. The office would be sparsely funded at first, for no more than a year or two. Its only resources would be the power to pore over agency budgets, audit expenditures, or even redesign or challenge the need for or effectiveness of this or that program. Then it would take its recommendations back to Congress, which could act on them.
The whole trick is this. The Office would get its funding entirely out of the money it saved from other programs. It would get to keep 10 percent of all its proposed spending cuts, while returning 90 percent to the Treasury. That way the office could expand and grow, but drawing its funding entirely out of its own efforts.
It’s a bit like the biological control of farm pests or other strategies that turn predator against predator. The bureaucratic impulse would be used to curb the growth of other bureaucracies. Of course it could turn into a monstrosity, devouring whole portions of the government and even taking over the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency — which might not be such a bad thing. But more likely, after harvesting most of the low-hanging fruit, it would settle down to a reasonable size, establishing some sort of equilibrium with its prey. Instead of waiting to be audited, government departments might start offering up their own proposals for reductions — rather than the usual requests for more money — in order to satisfy its natural adversary. Under this kind of evolutionary winnowing, the office would eventually reach some optimal size. In order to maintain its own fitness, it might be authorized to spawn offspring that could promise budget reductions at only 1/20th of the savings, introducing yet another element of competition into the federal ecosystem.
Any way you look at it, this idea of using “natural controls” to cut the fat out of government seems worth a try. The federal government is simply too big and Congressional committees too overwhelmed with other responsibilities to exercise line-by-line scrutiny over a $4 trillion budget. But turning loose an organism that lives on the fruit of its auditing would establish an ecological balance with other agencies. It works very well in nature. It’s worth giving a try in Washington as well.