Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wasteful Agency-Spending: Employee Bonuses as a Solution

Use it or lose it. I am referring to “the habit of [U.S. Government] agencies spending all surplus funding at the end of the fiscal year in order to avoid budget reductions the following year.”[1] By spending the entire amount allotted for the budgetary year, a federal agency can avoid a lower base-line for the following year’s allotment from Congress. The incentive in this system is to spend every dollar in the budget, whether efficiently or profligately. The challenge is how to replace that incentive with another—one that results in efficient public budgeting. Unfortunately, relying on an incentive presupposes discretion, and one person can never be sure what lies behind another person’s use of it.

In May 2015, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators proposed to “give agency inspectors general the ability to grant $10,000 bonuses to federal employees who identify surplus or unneeded funding at their agencies.”[2] According to one the senators, “the bill helps combat the perverse incentive to spend leftover money by offering employees a positive incentive to help IGs save money.”[3] That perverse incentive is what made the U.S.S.R. so inefficient economically, as state-owned (i.e., socialist) and controlled (i.e., regulated) enterprises (as well as government agencies) operated likewise. In that political economic system, quotas both in budgets and widgets were the currency by which the system operated. Such bloat, inefficiency and mismanagement that weakened the Soviet Union from within also hampers good government at the federal level in the United States.

The proposed law would amend the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which gave Congress more authority in the budget process. “The Act was inspired by Richard Nixon’s refusal to disburse nearly $12 billion of congressionally-appropriated funds in 1973-74 through the executive power of impoundment.”[4] Nixon cited the impact of the federal budget deficit on inflation as the reason for refusing to spend appropriated funds. The rationale is problematic prime facie because the U.S. president is tasked with enforcing the law rather than selectively enforcing it. Not contradicting the law would have meant going back to Congress with a recommendation that a law be passed withdrawing the surplus funds.

Even though the proposed law in 2015 would place the discretion with civil-service employees rather than politicians, a Democratic U.S. Senate aide said “that the amendment’s language may [allow] federal government administrators to defund key agency functions for ideological or political reasons.”[5] Civil servants are human too, and, besides, they can be subject to pressure from politicians higher up the food chain. In other words, we are back to the same problem—that which is inherent to discretion. Sen. Mike Enzi can have all the faith in the world in “the people holding the shovel who really know how to solve problems”—that “the folks responsible for administering individual programs know where the money is, what is needed and what is being wasted”—but all this does not necessarily mean that the civil servants would flag a budget item as “surplus” because it really would be wasteful to spend the money. Even a bureaucrat holding a shovel could provide an efficiency rationale for cutting one budget-item so as to get out of having to do a boring  ideologically-objectionable task or program. The bonus would be, well, a bonus. That is to say, a perverse incentive.

[1] Andy Medici, “New Bill: Point Out Surplus Funds, Get a $10,000 Bonus,” Federal Times, May 21, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Regional Oral History Office, “1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act,” The Bancroft Library, University of California-Berkeley, March 7, 2011 (accessed May 23, 2015).
[5] Daniel Marans, “Rand Paul Amendment Would Increase Executive Branch Power,” The Huffington Post, May 22, 2015.