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Congress needs to flush obsolete programs

Marketplace Staff May 24, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: As the Senate continues to stew over immigration, the more mundane work of lawmaking goes on. The House is looking at government waste. It’s setting up a bipartisan commission to review federal programs and get rid of the ones that aren’t worth the money. With a $2.7 trillion budget, that’s a lot of programs. New ones are added every year. Commentator Steve Moore says it’s the subtracting that’s the hard part.

STEVE MOORE: Our private-sector capitalist economy operates on a concept that economists have come to call “creative destruction.” That means in with the new and out with the old, if you want to stay profitable and a step ahead of the competition.

But in government we get plenty of creation, but never much destruction. Ronald Reagan once quipped that the closest thing to immortality on this earth is a government program.

For example, the telephone excise tax was put in place “temporarily” to fund the Spanish-American War. A century later, we’re still paying for it.

Here’s another absurdity: Uncle Sam still spends millions of dollars a year on the wool and mohair program to subsidize America’s goat herders. We introduced the subsidies during World War I to make sure the military had enough wool to make uniforms for soldiers. We haven’t used wool in uniforms for decades, but the handouts live on.

Or take the bilingual education program. Virtually every study indicates that immigrant children learn English must faster without it. But we still fund it to the tune of $300 million a year.

Or consider Amtrak. On some routes, the taxpayer subsidy exceeds $300 per passenger. It would actually be cheaper for taxpayers to pay for free limousine service than to keep the trains running. That’s no way to run a railroad.

What’s needed in Washington is a proven efficiency expert like Fred Smith, CEO of Federal Express, to streamline federal agencies. Programs should undergo performance audits at least every five years to assess whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

If you ask me, eternal life is for heaven, not for earth. Government policy should reflect the 21st century, not the 19th.

RYSSDAL: Steve Moore is a member of editorial board at The Wall Street Journal.

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