President-elect Donald Trump, like many first-time presidents, views government as a necessary evil.
For decades, most politicians, regardless of whether they had private-sector experience, supported shrinking the size of the executive branch. The most notable voice in recent years was former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who commented in 2011 that he would abolish three agencies (though he could not remember one of the three).
Perry’s statement illustrates what many politicians know: Criticizing the government is good politics. But what most politicians conceal is the fact that federal spending levels would change little in the long term if Congress eliminated all non-Department of Defense executive branch agencies.
Total spending for the executive branch, known as “discretionary funding,” amounts to 30 percent of all U.S. spending. The Department of Defense accounts for half of that, so agencies like Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs make up 15 percent.
If Congress listened to Perry and eliminated the Department of Energy (the agency he will soon administer), the government would save $28 billion annually, which is roughly equivalent to the cost of two new CVN-class aircraft carriers.
The Department of Energy’s mission includes protecting the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, managing the strategic petroleum reserve, investing in efforts to prevent cyber and physical attacks on U.S. energy infrastructure and conducting programs to ensure worker health and safety.
Energy’s annual budget, like those of other executive agencies, illustrates that bureaucrats are not expensive. Mandatory spending — i.e., Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the debt — accounted for 70 percent of total government spending in 2016. Mandatory spending must be addressed to balance the budget, but politicians know that threatening a reduction in these programs is electoral suicide.
In fact, one of the best methods to improve government accountability is to invest in more bureaucrats.
The executive branch is the same size as it was in the 1970s, despite the increasing number of laws and regulations passed by Congress. (Yes, Congress is to blame for most of those pesky rules and regulations.) The government’s workload has skyrocketed, as measured by the amount of spending per government employee, yet neither Congress nor any executive will support additional resources to implement the rules and regulations they advocate.
The result of this dilemma is that government contracts out many of its duties to the private sector. Government managers are forced to shift existing resources — those used to undertake other governmental duties — to manage contracts.
Contracting out does not mean the government is allowing market forces to determine the cheapest and most effective method to accomplish a task. Instead, the government is paying big dollars to companies to undertake governmental missions. Why? Because it is politically palatable.
The government remains at 2.1 million people or fewer, and money is pumped into the economy from the government. Do you wonder why lobbyists like this approach?
In 1887, then-professor Woodrow Wilson wrote about a “science of administration,” a business-like philosophy of government that would probably be heartily endorsed by CEO Trump. The president-elect and the country, however, should understand that there are fundamental differences between business and government.
Constitutional values, not corporate law and profit, guide the public sector. Government serves public interests while protecting the competing values that underpin those interests. The government, in other words, cannot ignore or trample on one group’s rights at the expense of another.
The private sector, in contrast, is governed by corporate law and profit, and business executives are disinterested in anyone who cannot support that goal. Additionally, the government is not owned by a majority stakeholder, so compromise (a.k.a. separation of powers) is the linchpin of our democratic system.
These differences do not mean that government cannot learn from the private sector. Some of Trump’s private-sector nominees may bring fresh energy and ideas to the executive branch, and since the 1920s many business practices have been successfully incorporated into government.
But we should remember that the republic’s founders intended the structure and processes of government to reflect constitutional values, not those of free enterprise.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Chris Dishman is a Ph.D. candidate in public affairs at the University of Texas at Dallas. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.
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