CAUSE FAILURE, BLAME GOVERNMENT

ABSTRACT: Government agencies perform many necessary and important functions. However, inadequate funding results in ineffective agencies. But the fault doesn’t lie with the government agencies; it lies with those who make the funding decisions. A classic strategy of the small government ideologues is to cause government agencies to be ineffective by underfunding them and then to point to their failures and say, “See government doesn’t work.” This strategy has produced the current crisis at the Veterans Administration (VA).

A similar crisis is brewing at the Social Security Administration (SSA).As millions of baby boomers are retiring, budget cuts are forcing reductions in access to SSA services. Since 2010, the SSA has closed 64 field offices, 533 temporary mobile offices, and reduced hours at the 1,245 field offices that remain open. Meanwhile, enrollment in Social Security retirement benefits has increased 27% over the last 6 years. In 2013, 43 million Americans visited SSA offices and 43% had to wait more than 3 weeks for an appointment.

Similarly, regulatory agencies that oversee public safety often suffer from insufficient funding to effectively perform their jobs. A classic example is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the 525,000 bus and truck operators in the US. Inadequate funding cripples enforcement. While the number of buses and miles traveled have increased significantly since 2006, the agency’s under $600 million budget and 350 investigators have remained essentially unchanged. 546 interstate carriers are operating with violations above acceptable levels but 29% of them haven’t had a federal safety review in over 2 years and an additional 11% have never been reviewed. Buses receive far less scrutiny than the airlines despite 7,518 crashes in the last 4 years resulting in 171 fatalities and 9,414 injuries, while US airlines have had no fatal crashes.

Buses are but one example among many of where a regulatory agency doesn’t have the funding necessary to effectively do its job of keeping the public safe. Such agencies, as well as the VA and SSA, are classic examples of the “shrink [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bath tub” radical right wing, libertarian strategy.

All too often the underfunding of government agencies is intentional – aimed at undermining both the effectiveness of the agencies and the public’s perception of government.

FULL POST: Government agencies perform many necessary and important functions. However, inadequate funding results in ineffective agencies. But the fault doesn’t lie with the government agencies; it lies with those who make the funding decisions.

A classic strategy of the small government ideologues is to cause government agencies to be ineffective by underfunding them and then to point to their failures and say, “See government doesn’t work.” This strategy has produced the current crisis at the Veterans Administration (VA). Responsible estimates are that the VA’s budget will need to double to effectively serve the growing number of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (See my post of 6/5/14 for more details on the VA crisis. https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2014/06/05/find-a-crisis-demand-privatization/.)

A similar crisis is brewing at the Social Security Administration (SSA). As millions of baby boomers are retiring and requesting help from the SSA to make decisions about enrolling in Social Security, budget cuts are forcing reductions in access to SSA services. Congress has cut 14 of the last 16 budget requests from the SSA, despite the fact that its budget comes out of the Social Security Trust Fund and, therefore, has no impact on the federal budget or deficit.

Since 2010, these budget cuts have forced the SSA to close 64 field offices, 533 temporary mobile offices that serve remote areas, and reduce hours at the 1,245 field offices that remain open. [1] And its full-time workforce has been cut by about 4,000 (14%) to 25,420. [2]

Meanwhile, enrollment in Social Security retirement benefits has increased 27% over the last 6 years from 2.6 million to 3.3 million. As a result of this growing demand and declining capacity, seniors seeking information and help are experiencing increasingly long waits. In 2013, 43 million Americans visited SSA offices and 43% had to wait more than 3 weeks for an appointment, up from 10% the previous year.

Similarly, regulatory agencies that oversee public safety often suffer from insufficient funding to effectively perform their jobs. Here, the efforts of the small government, “free market,” right wing libertarians are aligned with those of the regulated corporations who push for weak regulations and enforcement.

A classic example is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the 525,000 bus and truck operators in the US. Inadequate funding cripples enforcement. While the number of buses and miles traveled have increased significantly since 2006, the agency’s under $600 million budget and 350 investigators have remained essentially unchanged. More than 200 operators with serious violations identified by local police and other authorities have not received a full federal safety review in the last 2 years, if ever. And 546 interstate carriers are operating with violations above acceptable levels but 29% of them haven’t had a federal safety review in over 2 years and an additional 11% have never been reviewed. Buses receive far less scrutiny than the airlines despite 7,518 crashes in the last 4 years resulting in 171 fatalities and 9,414 injuries, while US airlines have had no fatal crashes. [3]

Buses are but one example among many of where a regulatory agency doesn’t have the funding necessary to effectively do its job of keeping the public safe. Others that have been in the news recently include distribution of tainted dialysis fluid, selling of contaminated drugs by a compounding pharmacy, and the chemical explosion in Texas that killed 14 and injured over 200. The responsible public safety agencies, as well as the VA and SSA, are classic examples of the “shrink [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” radical right wing, libertarian strategy. [4]

Government is the solution to many of the challenges that face us – from providing a base level of economic security in retirement to promoting safety in our everyday lives. All too often the underfunding of government agencies is intentional – aimed at undermining both the effectiveness of the agencies and the public’s perception of government.

[1]       Ohlemacher, S., 6/19/14, “Social Security closes offices as demand is on upswing,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[2]       Pear, R., 6/17/14, “Social Security agency cuts services as demand grows, Senate report says,” The New York Times

[3]       Johnston, K., & Wallack, T., 6/9/14, “Bus lapses mount, but scrutiny lags,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Quote is from Grover Norquist in 2004. He is the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grover_Norquist)

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