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Commentary: Sequestration and the potential for good

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 27, 2013 - Sequestration is a draconian action designed to force federal budget cutting in the absence of agreement between the Congress and the president. Excepting the major entitlements, Social Security and Medicare, the sequester process takes 10 percent from the budgets of all departments, including defense.

These cuts, which began March 1, have been decried in many circles. Small airports are losing air traffic control; veterans will lose their student benefits. And that is only the beginning of the list.

If bureaucrats and their constituencies behave true to form, all cuts will deny necessary service to the public and imperil national safety.

The purported peril arises from the very nature of bureaucracy. Government bureaus are not part of markets. They have no profit-and-loss statements. Scholars such as Aaron Wildavsky have postulated that a bureau’s success or failure lies in the size of its budget. Anything less than the yearly incremental increase means something is gravely amiss. Maintaining the budget, staff and its programs means success, whether or not programs have the originally desired intent.

Bureaus also practice goal displacement. For instance, a goal of the Department of Education is to enhance academic performance of American school children. Although school districts test away, the relationship between federal programs is tenuous, difficult to measure. Hence, bureaucrats will concentrate on what is more tangible, whether rules are followed.  Are expenditures put in the right category, etc. Their rules soon become paramount. And it is very difficult to change bureaus. Appointed heads come and go; civil servants remain.

They resist a new chief’s desires by flooding him with information or the converse, holding on to what they know. Sometimes, malfunctions occur when new programs are given to existing agencies to implement. The programs are forced to fit with existing standard operating procedures. Or congressional strictures may prevent a program from serving the very people it was meant to assist.

In the late 1970s, I examined Title I (of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) in operation in San Francisco. Title I was meant to assist poor children who were falling behind. Yet, if a child could not answer questions on a standardized test, he did not receive funding. Only Title I children could benefit from Title I-funded materials and field trips. If two students in a class of 30 were not Title I, they could not be included with their classmates.

The theory exists that the only way to reshape a bureau was if it received a huge budgetary increase or a significant decrease. Although some of sequestration’s effects may be short-lived, it still presents a very unusual opportunity for cabinet heads and other department chiefs.

It is a time to ask if certain tasks could be handled differently, personnel shifted, and resources distributed in different ways. A change strategy is not necessarily helped by taking 10 percent off of everything. And to use the cuts creatively, they cannot be made so as to achieve the largest public outcry. A wise chief would wield a scalpel, not a meat cleaver.

Needless to say, those who select the cuts do not operate in a vacuum. They face media scrutiny and the wrath of clientele who benefit from their programs. They may also have constituencies who monitor their programs very carefully and have often lobbied for them. These constituencies frequently have the ear of congressional committee chairs and other powerful members. They will fight changes that may negatively affect them. Bureaucrats are wary of members of Congress and significant interest groups. These monitors, let us say, can affect the nature of cutbacks in ways that are not necessarily for the good of the general public.

The sequestration may be a unique opportunity to at least try to ask what government is doing and why and could it be bettered. Whether there was adequate preparation or incentive this time around remains to be seen.

We need to know where the cuts have been made in countless offices and why. Budget cutting is necessary to bureaucratic change but because of other factors it may not be sufficient. Time will tell. It is easier to eliminate one program than to make a number work better.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita is public policy at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.