Starving Departments

Bill Neinast

A prevailing  consensus in the country is that the government is too big and too intrusive in our lives.  In response, there is a recurring  campaign promise to eliminate certain departments or agencies.

Unfortunately, there are problems with those promises.  Rarely is a candidate who makes such offers elected.  Then for those who are elected, a taste of reality kicks in.  

The reality is the permanency inherent in any federal program.  Consider, for example, the attempts of the Republican controlled Congress to repeal or amend the failed Obamacare that is less than eight years old.

Reducing the size and scope of the government is even a much higher hurdle.  The unemployment rolls would explode with the elimination of any cabinet level department.

In addition, those civil servants whose jobs were abolished would go on a “stopper list.”  Vacancies in other departments have to be filled first with individuals on the stopper list who were in a comparable position that was abolished.  In other words, you cannot get rid of incompetent federal employees even by abolishing their jobs.

Obviously, reducing the size and reach of the government by abolishing departments as promised in political campaigns is impractical.  There is a way, however, to rid ourselves of some   of those pesky, intrusive, and unnecessary bureaucrats.  Do not abolish their departments: just starve them out of existence.  

Here’s how.  

First, however, consider the 15 cabinet level departments.  They are the Departments of State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security.

Take a close look at those as you think, is this a function for the federal government, or could it be handled better or adequately at the local level?  Each of the 15 will have a cadre of strong support, but a consensus could form that the country would be more efficient and responsive if up to eight of the departments were abolished.

Without question, the first departments created were and are necessary.  Those would be State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, and Commerce.  Currently, the Department of Homeland Security, the last one to be created, is also probably necessary.  But are any of the other eight really necessary?

Then assume that none of the other eight is really necessary.  Here is an easy way to starve them to death.

Determine which departments should be placed on life support and place them on a list of the order in which they will be put on a starvation diet.  

Next, change the way those departments are funded.

Instead of having appropriations of so much for this and so much for that, each department would get a “block” appropriation.  Each would receive a single appropriation in the amount of its last detailed budget.  It would be up to the department heads to determine how, where, and when those funds would be used.

Those on life support would also be told that, except for the first to be placed on the starvation diet, the appropriations would be in the same amount every year.

The first on the list would go on a diet of having its appropriation reduced by 5% every year.  That means it would take at least 20 years to junk each department, but during that period the ability of the department to meddle in our daily lives would steadily decline.

Initially, there will be no bump in the unemployment rolls as the reductions in personnel costs in the starving departments will occur from normal resignations, retirements, and deaths.  At some point, though, there will have to be reductions in force (RIFs) to stay within the reduced budgets and those RIFed will fill vacancies in other departments caused by resignations, retirements, or deaths.

Starting all eight departments on the starvation diet at the same time would be catastrophic, so the list of those on the starvation diet of 5% less every year should grow by one every three years.

The list alone would have a positive effect.  Those identified for the slow death would realize that further growth and expansion was impossible, so there would be no new programs of intrusion into local governments and individual lives.   

So here’s the perspective.

Eliminating eight unneeded federal departments under this starvation diet would take almost a half century.  If, however, that would reduce the scope and cost of federal interference in local affairs, it would be worth the wait.


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