Demanding service from starved agencies

Posted: Wednesday, August 30, 2000

We have become a spoiled nation with zero tolerance for forest fires, tires that fail, plane crashes and food that makes us sick. And isn't is nice that we have? Never mind that our grandparents regarded these occurrences as either acts of God or everyday events to be tolerated without whining. They are also eventualities that we increasingly demand the federal government protect us from. And in the last 20 years, we have insisted it do so with a steadily shrinking share of the nation's resources. The category of "discretionary spending" hogged only 6.3 percent of the gross domestic product in 1999, its lowest share in a generation. This is the grab bag into which we put such arcane agencies as the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Food and Drug Administration.

And whenever Congress has wanted to prove its fiscal manhood, it simply took another whack at these defenseless bureaucracies. The number of federal bureaucrats, excluding the uniformed military, peaked in 1989 and has been more or less declining ever since.

Two events caused this. After 1981, Ronald Reagan's defense buildup and tax cuts for the rich produced immense budget deficits. This, coupled with Reagan's hostility to all bureaucracy, brought the starvation of these already lean and boring agencies. When the Clinton administration reversed gears in 1993, balancing the budget became the goal. This made it possible to contemplate saving Social Security and Medicare, the twin monsters of "nondiscretionary spending." But it also kept the lid on discretionary spending.

Besides, Bill Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over." The results were entirely predictable. When fires consume the West, we can't understand why we have to import firefighters from New Zealand.

When a single plane crashes, we demand an instant reason and don't get it. When tires come apart, we fail to make the connection with budget cuts in the Reagan administration that butchered the tire safety programs of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. When flights are delayed, we denounce the airlines instead of budget cuts that made crowding of the nation's air space inevitable. When the national parks system is starved of maintenance and staffing, we curse the entrance fees and restrictions that make enjoying our wilderness more like checking into a motel.

Among the most neglected agencies are such stepchildren as the Treasury Department's Internal Revenue Service, the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. The IRS has the job of collecting the money to fund all other government. The BEA and BLS calculate such statistics as the unemployment rate and the gross domestic product without which we wouldn't have a clue how prosperous we are, where the economy is headed, whether inflation is a threat or joblessness the greater threat. But all three have been systematically starved of staff and computers needed to accurately monitor a $10 trillion economy. The amount of money it would take to make these agencies whole, to make them efficient monitors and providers of the services we increasingly demand, is just too pitifully small for a grown nation to be arguing about.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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