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Bright Ideas Department: 2016 Campaign Edition

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Now that we’re hip deep in the 2016 campaign, a flurry of ideas for transforming — even eliminating — federal departments and programs have popped up. I’ll take a careful look from time to time at some of these proposals. High on the bright ideas list are:

Eliminate the Internal Revenue Service. Who likes the tax man? Attacking the IRS is a time-honored gambit. After all, students of the New Testament know that Jesus was criticized for associating with Matthew, the tax collector. But who’s going to collect the revenue that’s required to fund the government every candidate is promising? It’s not likely we’ll go back to the old days of funding government on external revenue (tariffs). The Government Accountability Office has found that we now leave $380 billion in uncollected taxes on the table. That’s unfair to those who dig deep to pay what they owe. And it encourages the unscrupulous to dare the federal government to find them. Heaven knows, we don’t like the IRS. But we can’t do without it, and trashing the agency will only undermine the system of voluntary tax compliance we rely on.

Abolish the Energy Department. The typical picture of the Energy Department is of tree huggers trying to convince everyone to install solar panels on their roofs. The reality is that DOE spends most of its money managing the nation’s nuclear arsenal and performing the basic research and development for cutting-edge science. Nine of every 10 of its dollars is spent through contractors. No one else wants the job of cleaning up the legacy of the nation’s 70-year effort to build nuclear weapons. And we can’t do without the research for the future.

Abolish the Transportation Security Administration. The blue-shirted airport screeners are more easy targets. And the TSA could be privatized. After all, most airports in Europe and Canada rely on private companies to do airport screening. But taxpayers would still pay for the service. It’s hard to believe that the screening would be even less intrusive. And the rules would surely be just as tight. No private company would want to be responsible for letting a terrorist slip through and, at the first sign of trouble, news cameras would zero in on top government officials to demand why they were asleep at the switch.

Abolish the Commerce Department. This is an old chestnut. What’s surprising is that proposals to wipe out Commerce have increasingly come from Republicans, since the department has typically been seen as the voice of business in the Cabinet. But there are limits on how much the department can be shrunk. It’s responsible for the census, every 10 years. That’s a constitutional mandate, and someone has to do it. Commerce runs the National Weather Service, which produces satellite imagery and data for forecasts around the country, including those of private forecasters. No data, no nice graphics on the evening news. Commerce enforces national standards, including those that prevent buildings from collapsing or bursting into flames. It’s hard to put those functions out of business.

Transfer the Veterans Affairs Department to the Defense Department. The only thing this would do would be to make an already monstrous Pentagon even larger and more unmanageable, with half of all of the nation’s civilian employees. The VA is a deeply troubled department, but there’s nothing to suggest that moving it to the Defense Department would solve its problems. There’s also nothing to suggest that Defense would want to have anything to do with the fixing the VA — or that there’s anything in its current mission that would give it the capacity to do so.

Eliminate the Education Department. This one is fair game. Education administers a host of grant programs that conservatives would like to abolish (but which lots of local schools depend on). A big chunk of the department’s financial leverage over the system, however, comes from its management of college student loan programs. Everyone agrees that college loans are becoming a stifling burden for too many families. No one wants to abolish the loan programs and make it even harder for poor and middle-class families to attend college.

There are lots of attractive sound bites here. “There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip” goes the old English proverb. If presidential candidates had to live with the government they’d create by pursuing these proposals, there’d be slips aplenty.

I’ll be back later in the campaign to assess other hot-button proposals for the structure and operation of the federal government. 

(Image via hafakot/Shutterstock.com)

Donald F. Kettl is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Volcker Alliance. He is the author of many books, including Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America's Lost Commitment to Competence, The Politics of the Administrative Process, System Under Stress and The Next Government of the United States. Kettl is a two-time recipient of the Louis Brownlow Book Award of the National Academy of Public Administration. In 2008, he won the American Political Science’s John Gaus Award for a lifetime of exemplary scholarship in political science and public administration. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University and has held appointments at University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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