Subject Areas


Governing America

How big is too big? Look at Washington D.C.

Big government: destroyer of efficiency

I was trying to think of an apt description of the incomprehensible size and scope of our national government. First, I considered “Kudzu” and its habit of spreading into unplanned areas, and the high cost of controlling its growth, but decided that this comparison had been made too many times. Next, I thought of Topsy, and how she “just grow’d,” but that growth seemed too tame to describe the enormous expansion of our bureaucracy. Finally, I remembered Jack’s “magic beans” that grew into a gigantic stalk, and led Jack into danger from the giant. That tale included almost everything to illustrate our present predicament; belief in magic, uncontrolled growth, stealing the golden eggs from the future, and a giant (think China) waiting to devour us.

You have probably heard warnings about our federal government being too large and out of control. Perhaps you have passed these warnings off as being merely Republican politics as usual. Unfortunately, although there is a political element in this discussion, the mammoth size and fragmentation of the government rises well above political party concerns. You may have heard that President Clinton (a Democrat) once proclaimed that the “era of big government is over.” Unfortunately, Mr. Clinton was quite mistaken, and the disorganization has only multiplied during the intervening years.

To get a quick idea about the governmental monster, look at the usa.gov Web site. Let’s start with this: the Federal Executive Branch has 15 major departments and each department has many branched and subordinate organizations. There are about 65 additional” Independent Agencies and Government Corporations.” There are also about 70 “Boards, Commissions and Committees”. Not to be overlooked are the four “Quasi-Official Agencies”, and the more than 1000 “Federal Advisory Committees.” These advisory committees are not listed individually; probably because no one knows exactly how many there are and their purposes.

Now those are pretty big numbers, but aren’t they all needed? Well, some of the departments (for example, Defense, State, Treasury) are certainly required for our safety and well being. Among the Independent Agencies, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has provided excellent government protection for our individual bank deposits. And, of course, there are other worthwhile agencies. On the other hand, much of our government bureaucracy is too bloated, too costly, and too inefficient.

A good example is the Department of Education. This department performs absolutely no function that is vital to national education! The individual states are responsible for educating their residents, and tax us to pay for it. So what does the Education Department do? It interferes with the states by mandating costly and confusing “guidelines,” and places other requirements on the states. The Education Department comprises fourteen generally obscure sub-agencies. Their self-descriptions are proof of their inanities. For example;  the “Office of Intergovernmental and Interagency Affairs”, which engages “key groups and constituencies including government, business, religious and community organizations, as well as families, students and the general public;” and the Office of Innovation and Improvement: “a nimble, entrepreneurial arm of the U.S. Department of Education.”

One of the tools that the bureaucracy uses to coerce acceptable behavior is the awarding of “grants” to those who follow its dictates. It is a kind of reverse “spread the wealth” program that takes from the many to award to political favorites. The great irony is that these grants have been funded with the taxes on the same states and communities that might possibly—if they cooperate—get some of their money back, tied with bureaucratic strings. Even worse is that much of the money is borrowed, to be paid back by future generations. There are more than 43 federal different agencies that offer grants, and high on the list are the Health and Human Services Department (17 programs), and the Education Department.

The concept of "span of control" says that there are critical limits on the amount of activity that can be managed by one person or agency. In the case of our government, the span is clealy beyond its control!