Of all the promises candidate Donald Trump made during the 2016 presidential campaign, none will be more difficult to fulfill than cutting the size and cost of the federal government.
That's because Congress, which must decide whether to keep a federal agency, has the final word in such matters and spending, especially spending in one's home state or district, is what keeps so many of them in office. Who doubts that self-preservation is the primary objective of most members of Congress?
Ronald Reagan made similar promises about reducing the size of the bloated federal government, but was unable to fulfill them because of congressional intransigence. Perhaps his most notable failure was attempting to eliminate the Department of Education, an unnecessary Cabinet-level agency created by Jimmy Carter, reportedly as the fulfillment of a campaign promise to the National Education Association (NEA), the largest labor union in the United States, which backed him in the 1976 and 1980 elections.
This pithy statement by Reagan got to the heart of the issue: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!"
President Trump has asked every federal agency to submit a reorganization plan to the White House. Some programs, like the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Biological Survey Unit (BSU), are decades old. The BSU was established in 1885, and among its tasks is the preservation of the whooping crane. Last I checked those birds seemed to be doing OK, but why is this, along with so many other things, a responsibility of the federal government?
Reorganization of these outmoded and unnecessary programs and agencies should not be the goal. Elimination should be the goal. Unless they are killed off, the risk of their return is likely.
What's needed is a strategy that shames Congress, which sometimes seems beyond shame, for misspending the people's money. What will help in that shaming is for the president to establish an independent commission made up of retired Republicans, Democrats and average citizens. This commission would conduct a top-to-bottom audit of the federal government and present its findings to Congress, while simultaneously releasing them to the public, which would then apply pressure on Congress to adopt them.
The commission would be modeled after the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) of the '80s, which eliminated military bases that were no longer needed for the defense of the country. Some members of Congress complained about BRAC, but in the end they could not justify maintaining the bases.
The president might want to start with some of these ridiculous programs recently highlighted by Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a private, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose mission it is "to eliminate waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in government."
"Without authorization," notes Schatz, "the feds spent $19.6 million annually on the International Fund for Ireland. Sounds like a noble cause, but the money went for projects like pony-trekking centers and golf videos.
"Congressional budget-cutters spared the $440,000 spent annually to have attendants push buttons on the fully automated Capitol Hill elevators used by representatives and senators.
"Last year, the National Endowment for the Humanities spent $4.2 million to conduct a nebulous 'National Conversation on Pluralism and Identity.' Obviously, talk radio wasn't considered good enough.
"The Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency channeled some $11 million to psychics who might provide special insights about various foreign threats. This was the disappointing 'Stargate' program."
The list goes on and on. Go to cagw.org, read all about it and remember it's our money paying for these boondoggles (definition: "a project funded by the federal government out of political favoritism that is of no real value to the community or the nation") that helps keep our free-spending career politicians in office where they get benefits the rest of us can only dream about.
Yes, entitlements are the main drivers of debt and they, too, need reform. But starting with programs most people would find outrageous and worthy of elimination is a good way to build confidence and make the tackling of entitlements more palatable.
Cal Thomas, America's most-syndicated columnist, is the author of 10 books.