Teehan: Growing government: an unfair burden for the young

I’m worried about Washington. The recent shutdown begs questions about Washington’s inability to govern. If we don’t identify the sources of the current dysfunction, young Americans will face declining standards of living and barriers to the upward mobility that has defined America for generations.

To that end, the situation in Washington is not simply a political crisis; it’s an economic and a moral one. Washington suffers from undue influence by special interests, lack of accountability, and excessive and wasteful spending. These problems explain obstructions to critical federal legislation and the sharp division among our representatives. While people point fingers at the left or the right, or at individuals inside the beltway, I believe the culprit is the explosive growth of the federal government.

Big government encourages special interests. The more the government has its hands in, the more others who care about those issues pressure representatives for support. The substantial money and votes that come from these special interests incentivize officials to spend significant time seeking money and support from these groups. In turn, they have less time to focus on the central work of the federal government, and less of the important, critical work gets done.

These special interests divide Congress and stall vital legislation. If the federal government did not involve itself in special-interest matters, Washington would have less to disagree over. With less disagreement, Congress would avoid the divisiveness and consequent paralysis that currently contaminates it. Policymakers cannot agree on the most fundamental issues because they let the more local, special-interest issues (improperly before them to begin with) get between them. They become distracted, even consumed, by the competitive scramble to secure subsidies for their sponsors and their passionate differences over these issues, rather than focusing on core federal work of the country.

Big government also makes it harder to hold politicians accountable. When people are clear about which level of government is responsible for which policies, programs and tasks, it’s easier to hold elected and other government officials accountable when things go wrong. Each new program and agency stretches thinner the ability of citizens to track government activities, identify failures and detect abuses. The expansion of federal government into the domain of local, special interests means no one, including in Washington, knows who is responsible for what. In that environment, finger pointing is easy. Our media cannot keep a watchful eye on such a greatly expanded government.

Equally troubling, as government provides more and more money to special interests and other government agencies, citizens become dependent on government and less likely to criticize Uncle Sam. All of this threatens our democracy.

Big government also encourages wasteful spending. Because special interests know there is federal money available, they pressure their representatives to bring it home. Representatives receive support from these special-interest groups and eventually spend little time considering where the money comes from. Each subsidy costs money, generates bureaucracy, spawns lobby groups and distracts Congress from its core functions. Agencies have numerous overlapping programs that waste money because one agency doesn’t know what the others are doing. Government auditors spent five years in the mid-2000s analyzing federal programs. They found 22 percent of them — $123 billion annually — failed to show any positive impact. If the government were smaller, less money would be wasted on programs that don’t work.

By federalizing everything, we expect Congress to do the impossible. Congress simply has too much to do. It’s impossible to put so many competing interests before our elected officials and still expect them to efficiently plan for the rivaling needs and priorities of a diverse country of 314 million.

Ultimately, big government is hurting the young. If we don’t cut back government growth, average working families, namely younger ones, we will face huge tax increases. Young workers will work more and earn less as Uncle Sam digs deeper into debt to meet growing obligations. Without reform, we’re setting up our country for a war between the generations, as younger citizens are forced to pay the costs of this unsustainable growth. It is morally wrong to saddle future generations with that burden.

By downsizing, policymakers could focus on improving performance in a limited range of core government services. Just like every family in America, Washington, too, must set a budget and priorities. It must stop running on costly continuing resolutions that threaten our economic stability and democratic processes. In evaluating the plethora of government programs, our leaders must ask whether the program is wasteful —or something we can afford. At first we will all see cuts to programs we believe in or have come to rely on. But we have to resist the impulse that Washington can solve our problems. It’s not true — nothing is more a testament to that fallacy than the current state inside the beltway.

Jill Teehan is an attorney with Praxidice PC in Aspen. She graduated from Brown University in 2002, the London School of Economics in 2005 and Georgetown University Law School in 2008.


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