Obama this week announced an effort to hunt and destroy stupid federal programs. As he well knows, these programs are easy to find but tough to kill. I learned this when I was put in charge of a really stupid federal program. I got agreement at the highest levels of government to kill it. The program is still alive.
The year was 1993 and Bill Clinton had named Vice President Al Gore to chair a federal task force on Reinventing Government. This was, by some counts anyway, the eleventh such federal task force in the twentieth century. Gore created the Hammer Award to recognize government efficiency. He would send a $6 hammer, a striped ribbon and an aluminum-framed note to recipients. The award parodied the Pentagon's infamous alleged $436 hammer.
Better if Gore had bought six hammer and a sack and given awards to programs that were dumber than a bag of hammers but Gore, like Clinton and Obama, has a core belief that government programs could be made efficient. Personally, I think there are plenty of government programs whose value exceeds their cost and a whole lot that don't. The task of killing terminating inefficient programs is something that few democracies are good at -- and when they are, it is usually because they resort to extra-legislative processes, like military base closure commissions or the Texas Sunset Commission.
At this time, I had started a new federal agency in the Labor Department and some of my colleagues had generously contributed to my new enterprise by transferring to me all manner of federal detritus. At senior levels of government, that's how you get stuff off your shoe -- you give it to the new guy. One of the programs transferred to my benevolent care was known simply as 13(c). The program had a total of thirteen employees -- who turned out to be wonderful, dedicated people (the Federal Transportation Administration provides a detailed analysis of 13(c) here and the public comments on the DOL revisions to the law appear here).
At first, I did not pay much attention to 13(c). It was a small team whose job was to approve the release of federal transit funds. But on January 17, 1994, I suddenly learned a great deal about this small program.
On that day, a thrust fault ruptured in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles at 4:30 am. It produced the highest ground acceleration ever recorded by seismic instruments. Thirty people were killed immediately and another thirty died in the hours and days that followed. More than 9,000 people were injured. The Northridge quake destroyed parts of Interstate 5, California's aorta as well as the Antelope Valley Freeway. Within a day or two, the new President and several of his cabinet secretaries, including my boss at Labor, were on their way to Southern California to provide tangible federal support for rescue and reconstruction.
But a day before the trip, the Deputy Secretary told me that the US government could not release emergency transit funds because Section 13(c) approvals were still pending. Those funds were now needed immediately because Los Angeles suddenly needed hundreds of busses and vans to create new transit arrangements. I needed to understand 13(c) in detail. To quote the DOL website
"This Federal statute requires that employee protections, commonly referred to as "protective arrangements" or "Section 13(c) arrangements" must be certified by the Department of Labor and in place, before Federal transit funds can be released to a mass transit provider.
Meaning that the United States Department of Labor must certify in writing that no employee will be inconvenienced by federal transit spending as a condition of the release of the funds. I immediately met with the woman who ran 13(c), an experienced and smart federal professional.
"How much transit money are we holding for Southern California?"
"We don't know"
"You need to find out"
"We have no way to find out"
"OK, bring me the files on every single federal transit program in Southern California. I am good at addition."
"We can't do that. The files are not organized that way."
"Then go through every single file and pull all projects that take place in Southern California. Bring the files to me. I am releasing all the funds."
"You can't do that"
"Because we have not certified that these projects meet the necessary protective arrangements"
"It's true that you have not certified them. Which is why I am going to certify them. All of them. Stupid in normal times is expensive and inconvenient -- but stupid in an emergency is dangerous. Bring me those files."
"We cannot get started until morning"
"Absolutely not. This team stays in this building until those files are on my desk. All night is no problem -- I'll order pizza and come up and help"
I had the files by 10pm, I signed my name to a zillion forms and funds were released to Los Angeles. Better, certainly from my view anyway, 13(c) stayed out of the newspapers (something it is fairly good at). Not a single worker ever complained -- indeed rebuilding LA created a lot of good jobs.
By spring of 1994, Gore was in full search for needless federal programs to kill, so I quickly nominated 13(c). In no other part of government do we protect workers by witholding federal funds. Not for the military, for health care, for agriculture, or for any of the zillions other federal expenses. Why impede transit spending this way? This program was very small (we could easily redeploy the staff to more productive programs), it was unbelievably rigid (it added months or even years to federal transit funding), it had few supporters, and it had recently demonstrated its potential to endanger federal emergency response. What could be easier?
Gore knew about the program (the level of detail about tiny federal programs commanded by professional politicians always astonishes me). He wanted to make sure that Congress would support killing it. "You need to make sure Norm Mineta is on board". Norm Mineta chaired the House Committee on Transportation and, by accident, was someone I had known for a long time, since I worked on his campaign when he was my Congressman from San Jose. Also, he and I took the red-eye from San Francisco to DC each week. Easy.
Mineta: "13(c) is a relic. Love to kill it. Tell Secretary Reich and Gore that I'm fine letting it go. But you should probably check with OMB."
The Office of Management and Budget was run by Leon Panetta, a former Congressman that I remembered from when he was a Republican. Most Sunday nights, Panetta was on the same flight. He agreed that 13c was moronic (not his term) and was surprised that it was still around. He had no problem killing 13(c).
We were ready to go. The executive and legislative branches of a powerful government would soon rid itself of this pimple on the body politic.
It never happened. The United States Department of Labor still enforces section 13(c) of the Federal Transit Law, even though the statute is now located at Section 5333(b) of Title 49 of the U.S. Code. It is a tiny, trivial program -- but it delays hundreds of millions of transit dollars each year and adds millions of dollars of cost to these programs -- and no value.
Obama wants dumb federal programs to kill? Here is a tiny, stupid program without an advocate in the world outside of politically impotent transit unions. Transit professionals throughout the land despise 13(c) -- I literally have found nobody who has ever seriously defended it (including, truth be told, many of the program's own staff). But the political work to terminate even small, useless programs is enormous and the payoff is tiny. The political calculus has not changed in the five hundred years since Machiavelli advised his Prince on the danger of political reform:
"...there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order; this lukewarmness arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not truly believe in anything new until they actually have experience of it.
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