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Which budget would you cut?

August 15, 2016

Every single U.S. politician since the Declaration of Independence was signed has probably promised to end “waste, fraud and abuse” in one government agency or another and 2016 is no exception.

The three most visible candidates each have their own take on the problem.

Hillary Clinton plans on expanding spending for many government programs such as tuition support for students, but plans to pay for it with a $1.2 trillion tax increase.

Gary Johnson wants to cut spending, having previously advocated for cuts as high as 43% across the board.

Donald Trump plans on making all departments justify their use of Federal funds before allowing them more money or conversely, taking some of it away.  However, his decrease in revenue, i.e. his tax cut,  is forecast to raise the national debt by $11.5 trillion over 10 years unless the economy takes off like a rocket in the meantime.

Of course all this thriftiness never happens…what politicians take from one part of government gets funneled into some other part, taxpayer funded revenue (that’s taxes in ordinary person-speak) always seems to increase and the taxpayer’s total overdue bills (the national debt) never goes away under either Clinton or Trump.

So why not just take a meat cleaver to the budget, Gary Johnson style?

Before you buy into all that thriftiness rhetoric hook, line and sinker, let’s take a look at what defunding just one agency would entail.

There are 15 major departments that have Cabinet-level status, each of which has innumerable substrate offices and agencies under its control.

The 15 agencies are:

  1. Department of State
  2. Department of the Treasury
  3. Department of Defense
  4. Department of Justice
  5. Department of the Interior
  6. Department of Agriculture
  7. Department of Commerce
  8. Department of Labor
  9. Department of Health and Human Services
  10. Department of Housing and Urban Development
  11. Department of Transportation
  12. Department of Energy
  13. Department of Education
  14. Department of Veterans Affairs
  15. Department of Homeland Security

Asking people which department is the least critical and could be eliminated or severely defunded usually produces about as many suggestions as there are departments.

One frequent target is the Department of Education, so let’s look at that one. (Bear with me…it will only hurt for a little while.)

First, what does it do?

The overview and mission statement for the Department of Education is stated as follows:

  • Establishing policies on federal financial aid for education, and distributing as well as monitoring those funds.
  • Collecting data on America’s schools and disseminating research.
  • Focusing national attention on key educational issues.
  • Prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal access to education.

What does that mission cost, and why?

To do those things, the department’s most recent approved budget was 68 billion dollars and it employed 4400 people. The 2017 request increases to $69.4 billion.

The money is spent on and employees work in various sub-departments, as follows:

Reports to:Secretary of Education 

Office for Civil Rights

Institute of Education Sciences

Reports to: Deputy Secretary of Education           

Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools

Office of Innovation and Improvement

Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Office of English Language Acquisition

Office of Elementary and Secondary Education


Reports to: Under Secretary of Education 

Office of Federal Student Aid

Office of Vocational and Adult Education

Office of Postsecondary Education

White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities



National Center for Education Statistics

National Library of Education

National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research

Office of Migrant Education

Education Resources Information Center

National Assessment of Educational Progress


Other Independent organizations

Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance; National Institute for Literacy;  National Assessment Governing Board; National Board for Education Sciences; White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities; White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

(Source:,  Page Y15.)

The Department of Education controls and disburses federal aid to and for students, such as Pell grants, Head Start and many other programs.

That part of its mission is what is usually used to justify the department’s existence.

The D. of Ed. also defines or provides emphasis for national education goals, reports statistics, and issues social initiative-based directives, such as the now  infamous “bathroom letter.”

How is the Department’s money spent?

A total review on that subject would be a book, not a blog, so let’s just hit the high points.

The FY 2015 budget request justification as noted above allocates $2.059  billion to salaries, expenses and benefits, i.e. straight up administrative salary costs.

A substantial portion of the rest (approx. 55%) is paid out in the form of grants and contracts, some of them as multi-year awards, to accomplish various program goals.

A forecast of the funding opportunities for FY 2015 is available, but the total paid out to date is not reported as yet. A 172-page annual report for FY 2014 Federal Student Aid is available here.

It is important to note that not all of the money paid out results in direct financial aid to students, as much  of it is in the form of loan guarantees, statistical reporting, or studies to determine the course of future policy.

The budget figures also include such items as building and facilities maintenance, IT upgrades and maintenance, etc.

The point of all this is that the Department of Education funds a lot more than just student tuition costs and dictates policy via various studies and programs.

If only about half of the money actually gets to the students, the next question is:

Why not just lose all of the added administrative costs and leave the money in the pockets of the people, where it came from?

Pros and Cons

The argument against that, and it is a legitimate one,  is because John Q. Public often doesn’t or can’t invest in the type of education programs that are effective on a national scale..

The argument for it is that an “Education” department shouldn’t be engaged in social engineering via checkbook.

Another “for” argument is that all that accessible Federal money actually drives up the cost of education, as schools at every level add more and more frills to access money only available through some new initiative.

Take college for instance.

The thinking is that if parents and students demanded nothing more than a quality post-secondary classroom experience that resembles boot camp more than a four-year-long spring break party, college prices would have to come down to match the funds available.

Good luck with that.

Gosh, this austerity thing got complicated real fast, didn’t it? And this is one of the more uncomplicated departments. Imagine Health and Human Services or the Defense Department.

We can lower our cost of government but it’s going to have to be done over a long period of time using a scalpel, not a meat cleaver.

Since the Feds still don’t have the line item veto, any changes are likely to gum up the works on every budget showdown from now to eternity.

It’s easy to talk about “getting rid of”  this or that department.

It’s a lot harder to actually accomplish it.

From → op-ed

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