The mayor of Washington, D.C., Anthony Williams, has come up with a revolutionary idea that, if followed by him and other politicians, could turn politics on its head and improve the way government functions.
Speaking on a local radio station last Monday (March 29), Williams vowed to improve the dreadful city public schools, or he will resign. Later he qualified his comment, saying he would relinquish control of the schools and "consider" resigning his office if improvements are not made.
I like the first promise. Call it the ultimate in accountability. Suppose voters required their elected leaders to sign a pledge before the election that if their taxing and spending ways, or their legislative proposals, do not produce the results they claim, they agree to resign from office. Like certain court proceedings that require someone who sues to pay for the defendant's legal fees if he loses, a promise to resign from office should one's ideas prove a failure would make for better, less expensive and more effective government and would get more people involved in the political process from which too many remain cynically separated.
We could give politicians a number of "strikes and you're out" standards. Senators would be allowed to make five mistakes per six-year term, two to three mistakes for House members, who serve just two years.
Here's how it might work. Politicians who vote for more education spending but can't demonstrate that academic performance improves in proportion to increased funding would be charged with one mistake. Those who claim funding for abstinence programs won't reduce premarital sexual activity and are proved wrong get charged with a mistake.
Since there is so much waste, fraud and abuse in government, this kind of accountability would ensure that if politicians wanted to keep their jobs they would start to spend our money wisely, as if it were their own.
Consider the $15 billion in the fiscal 2004 budget for farm subsidies. This program was created to protect farmers from low incomes caused by low prices. Farmers who plant the most crops receive the largest subsidies. As the Heritage Foundation's Brian Riedl notes, farm subsidies lower prices further. Low prices are caused by an oversupply of crops, and farmers seeking large subsidies must plant more crops, which leads to lower prices and more subsidies. Three-quarters of all farm subsidies go to the wealthiest 10 percent of farmers. Ninety percent of all farm subsidies go for just five crops - wheat, corn, cotton, soybeans and rice. Farmers of other crops manage to stay in business without subsidies. This is a failed government program, and members of Congress who support it would be charged with one mistake.
Then there's the $6.7 billion Head Start program, created in 1966 to provide grants to school districts to increase "readiness" of disadvantaged children through comprehensive medical, social, educational and mental health assistance. But, according to exhaustive studies, the program does not show definitive evidence of long-term benefit for children. Another mistake.
Remember President Clinton's promise to put 100,000 police officers on the street? That cost $1.2 billion in the fiscal 2004 budget, but the program never provided that many officers, failed to reduce crime and had no coherent strategy beyond adding more bureaucracy. Furthermore, communities experiencing the most crime don't always get the most money since funding is linked to population, not incidence of crime. Big mistake.
Federal anti-drug advertising is costing about $180 million annually, but there is no evidence that the campaign is reducing drug use. With a federal program, failure means never having to say you were wrong.
The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) is costing $94 million this fiscal year. It was created in 1965 to fund economic growth in 13 Appalachian states through transportation access and community, business and human development. But there is no convincing evidence that ARC has provided long-term growth in jobs or capital investment in its 39 years of existence. Among its many faults, the program is duplicative. There are 342 economic development programs across government.
Imagine the money we'd save if failed programs like these were buried for good. Maybe the only way to make sure we get the government we're paying for is to take Mayor Williams up on his offer and have voters require it of every member of Congress.