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Friday, January 1, 1993

A Reviewer’s Notebook: Government Racket

Why is the federal government spending $84,000 to find out why people fall in love?

In the course of assembling material for his book, Government Racket: Washington Waste from A to Z (Bantam Books, 270 pp., $7.95 paperback), Martin Gross has had to have recourse to the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. It’s all a manner of speaking, of course. Gross needs a double and triple alphabet. He has had to use the letter C at least a score of times (C for Consultants, C for Congressional Committees, C for Chief Executive, etc.).

His book abounds in singularities. He has discovered, for instance, that the Department of Education doesn’t teach a single one of our children—and only contributes six percent of the massive cost of education. States and districts account for the rest. The Department of Transportation covers less than half the cost of our roads. The Department of Energy doesn’t pay our electricity, oil, or gas bills. The Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t furnish a majority with any medical care. The Department of Agriculture provides services to farmers whose number decreases every year, even as the number of its bureaucrats increases.

So where does the money go? The old answer was that it went to buy my baby clothes just to keep her in style. But this was a gag. The money goes to buy aircraft and limousines to keep government employees—mainly bureaucrats—rolling through the skies and on the ground. Their wives must roll, too. New buildings go up in Washington and New York “like in the Roman Empire.” The census counters do more than count individuals every tenth year of their supposed mission. In between times they may inspect what you keep in your freezer.

Anyone could lead the House of Representatives in opening prayers—but the House Chaplain gets a salary of $155,300—and this, says Gross, is “no typo.”

Washington’s biggest growth industry is the Congressional Committee—today there are approximately 300 committees in the House and Senate. Joint committees have proliferating sub-committees, each with its own chairman, staff, office, and perks.

We’re talking, says Gross, about a small army: “7,800 people in the House and 4,000 in the Senate—a total of almost 12,000 federal employees.” Each Senator has 40 aides, not counting those on his Committees.

The growth of staff has pushed Congress into looking for still more space. In addition to the three House Office Buildings (Cannon, Rayburn, and Longworth) and three Senate Buildings (Hart, Dirksen, and Russell), Congress has taken over two more buildings near the Capitol and renamed them in honor of former Speaker Tip O’Neill and former President Gerald Ford.

Besides the Washington office, each Congressman has also up to three offices in his home district. Says Gross, one district office is enough for any Congressman. The others should be closed.

Then there is “the shadow empire.” This consists of outside consultants who get up to a thousand dollars a day with the taxpayers footing the bill. Reagan considered this scandalous. But instead of getting angry, all Jimmy Carter and Reagan had to do was to sign an executive order outlawing all consulting contracts. “Just a stroke of the pen,” says Gross, who adds, “We’re still waiting.”

The General Services Administration has allowed one Congressional leader to pay more than $3,000 for a single desk. So how much is spent on furniture and decorating each office? “No one in the government really knows,” says Gross.

There have been 11,000 members of Congress, with some 800 still alive. About 600 belong to the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, which makes them “super lobbyists.” They are privileged to walk on to the House floor at all times. Armed with status and access to former buddies “even in the House or Senate cloakroom, dining room, gym, or swimming pool,” the super-lobbyist can accomplish miracles.

Gross says we are in terrible shape with a federal debt that has passed the four trillion dollar mark. In 1993, it will cost us $315 billion just in interest. We do crazy things, such as spending nearly one billion dollars for unwanted honey just to keep beekeepers happy. In one year we gave away the total honey crop while the American people bought the same amount of honey from overseas. We have stored a billion dollars worth of helium underground, enough to last to the twenty-second century. And the junkets go on, with no real demand for travel to distant places. One hundred people went to the Paris Air Show for $200,000.

The $4 trillion debt looms like Mount Everest until we come upon Gross’s item about land purchases. The government, he tells us, owns thirty percent of all land in the United States. At this point, one is inclined to say, “Wow!” If we were to sell the land to tax-paying people we’d be out of debt, wouldn’t we? Yes, but it isn’t going to happen. Congress has just paid $1.9 billion, or $50,000 an acre, for raw forest land.

Pork takes up considerable space in Gross’s book. Do we really need to spend $107,000 to study the sex life of the Japanese quail? Or $60,000 for Belgian endive research? Or $84,000 to find out why people fall in love? Gross quotes Senator Proxmire as saying, “I have spent my career trying to get Congressmen to spend money as if it were their own, but I have failed.”

Gross’s own cure for the whole business of waste is to suggest the creation of two executives to run the government in the president’s name. One would be Chief Operating Officer; the other would be Chief Financial Officer. Their big function would be to bypass the cabinet. With “ZBB,” or Zero Based Budgeting that pays no attention to last year’s appropriations, and with the president having a line-item veto, we might have real reform. On the other hand, only a limitation of the terms of office for Senators and Representatives (twelve years for Senators, eight for Representatives) could spread the fear of God through Capitol Hill.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.