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Fund Our Agency Or We Shoot The Dog

Classic tactics from Washington: Find a popular program and threaten to kill it if Congress doesn’t fork over some dough. As the Washington Post reports:

Federal officials are warning Congress that funding cuts and program delays will create a gap in weather satellite coverage starting in about 2016. That’s when a key polar-orbiting satellite is expected to exceed its design lifetime, with no ready replacement.

This is the oldest trick in the bureaucratic book.  Threaten that any budget trimming will lead to highly popular, high-profile programs being cut to the bone.  One reason this hackneyed and ancient bureaucratic defense mechanism remains popular: journalsts can be reliably trusted to fall for it.

“Cuts lead to modest savings in obscure programs which may marginally reduce services and inconvenience some,” is not nearly as good a story as “Orphans to starve thanks to austerity cuts.”

It’s not only a better story, taking the bureaucrats’ press release and running with it saves time.  Journalists are overworked; if a perfectly usable story walks in the front door, they have little incentive to dig deep.  And often enough, journalists have relationships with the bureaucrats whose interests are threatened by cuts; helping a source push a story the source likes is part of the backscratching that journalists need.

It’s worth noting this now because the next few years will see a lot of budget cuts.  The public needs to develop an appropriately cynical attitude to the inevitable tearjerker stories.  And journalists need to feel some pushback if they don’t do their jobs.  It’s important for the public to understand what budget cuts will really do to various agencies and programs; journalists need to develop the analytical skills that will enable them to get behind the propaganda and tell us what the cuts really mean.

Older readers will remember when the National Lampoon sold magazines this way:

That is no way to run a government.

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  • John B

    Oh so true. I worked for a total 13 years in several state and municipal agencies. I have never doubted that if circumstances forced a 10 percent budget reduction in any of those or other agencies, their work could have been carried on with hardly a ripple. Indeed, some things would have improved as a result of cleaning out dead wood who obstructed work and eliminating pointless activities. Anyone who has worked inside government — and is honest — knows this simple truth.

    In other words, only when you dig deeper than 10 percent (which works out to about $400 billion of the federal budget) do choices get tough.

  • Scott Irwin

    Aaaahh. Finally you reveal your 70s roots. Only way you would possibly remember this cover. Kudos from another fan of National Lampoon magazine when it only had an underground cult following

  • Toni

    At the local level, they threaten cutbacks to police, firefighters, and garbage pickup.

  • Bob Siegler

    I’d had the same thought; being less articulate than W. Mead, I’d named it the, “Fire the policemen and firemen first” approach. Journalists could probably find lots of great ideas for new columns by going through National Lampoon issues from the 70’s.

  • dearieme

    In Britain the phenomenon is known as shroud-waving.

  • Bernard

    Interesting concept, and while valid about the tactic used by an agency it is also simplistic and naive to think all it takes is an agency staff person and a lazy reporter in collusion that prevents budget cuts to the less sexy government programs and services.

    The key players in this little ecosystem are the interest groups who work to see that Congress continues to approprate funds for programs. Some programs have widespread popularity and public appeal. Other programs less so but they have dedicated and resourceful interest groups who see to it that agency budgets are protected.

  • Stuart Wilder

    Not threaten, Toni, they cut. Camden, New Jersey believes Chris Chistie’s promises. If you want a cop there, report gunfire. If you are in a fire, good luck. Already one family died arguably in part due to inadequate fire resources. (Oh, for those who don’t know, New Jersey has run Camden for years. Only so much can be done when every major industry, like Campbell’s and RCA skedaddle all at once.)

  • Jim.

    Well, if they hadn’t decided to split the weather satellite up into two weather satellites, the program schedule wouldn’t be in this mess.

    Also if they hadn’t tried to give one half to Ball, whose original bus design isn’t big enough to accommodate the necessary sensors, they wouldn’t be wasting nearly so much time in redesign.

    Fortunately, satellites are so overdesigned in the first place that chances are, what’s in orbit will exceed its design life by a long, long time.

    I know, I know, that’s not the point of WRM’s post. But if they hadn’t tried chopping the dog in half in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t be faced with a choice between drastic, expensive surgery and putting him down.

  • Corlyss

    No way to run a government?

    But it works so well! Have you noted that almost every proposed cut has brought an interest group that gets media cover to claim that ending the program will be the end of civilized life as we know it? Perfect cover for some pol to ride over the ridge and save the day.

  • Stephen St. Onge

    “This is the oldest trick in the bureaucratic book. Threaten that any budget trimming will lead to high popular, high profile programs being cut to the bone. One reason this hackneyed and ancient bureaucratic defense mechanism remains popular: journalists can be reliably trusted to fall for it.”

    Actually, I doubt they fall for it, I think they know quite well it’s all BS, but repeat the lie because they are as opposed to budget cutting as the govt. employees.

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