Why Budget Line Items Don’t Die

In Washington Post last month, David A. Fahrentold marvels at what he calls the “Line Items That Won’t Die” – federal programs that benefit narrow interests, but somehow manage to keep getting funded: “One spends federal money to store cotton bales. Another offers scholars a chance to study Asian-American relations. Two others pay to market U.S. oranges in Asia and clean up abandoned coal mines.”

Fahrenthold attributes their success to having Congressional champions. The study of Asian-American relations, for example, takes place at a Honolulu nonprofit called the East-West Center, and enjoys the support of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who also happens to be chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But there’s also a broader story: the simple fact that when a government program benefits a narrow constituency, it’s very easy for that constituency to organize and make demands on legislators about why this program is worth keeping. The larger public, meanwhile is rarely aware, and even if it were aware, is unlikely to do anything.

Take the Market Access Program discussed in the article, which helps promote U.S. agricultural products abroad. A coalition of agricultural interests benefit greatly from this, and they are organized to advocate fiercely for its continuance and threaten to punish any Senator or Congressman who would vote against the program by withdrawing votes and campaign contributions. Nobody in the general public, however, is likely to care about or vote based solely on this single issue.

This is the difference in what congressional scholar R. Douglas Arnold has called “attentive publics” and “inattentive publics.” Attentive publics are the small groups that care deeply about particular policies, and as a result, are likely to be more influential because they care so intensely about that one issue. Inattentive publics are everyone else. The public might be outraged after reading about the Market Access Program, but the likelihood of most people following up are small. Think of it this way: If 1,000 people want money from you, but only one bothers to keep calling you up telling you why he’s so deserving and threatens to punch you in the face if you don’t give him the money, you’re probably going to give that one person money, especially if it’s likely the other 999 will not even notice or if they do, won’t remember.

Another way to think about it (borrowing from James Q. Wilson) is in terms of distributed costs and concentrated benefits. The benefits of a program that pays peanut and cotton farmers to store their bales and bushels in warehouses are solidly concentrated among peanut and cotton farmers. The costs are distributed to everybody else. But the cost per taxpayer is so small that it’s hard to imagine any group getting organized to fight this particular program. Whereas the farmers – well, they’re damn certain to do fight any cuts to the program. What results is what Wilson calls “client politics” – where small narrow interests work with the relevant congressional committee and executive agency staff to build a usually impenetrable consensus around the importance of a single program.

The challenge for governing is that the federal budget and tax code and regulatory apparatus are filled with thousands upon thousands of these programs, each protected by a small consensus, and without any public coverage. One only need to scroll through the Federal Register to see all the small issues that could potentially benefit small attentive publics at the expense of everyone else. Or better yet, look through the tax code to find all the little credits and deductions for very narrow benefits. It’s enough to make your head spin round and round and round. Jonathan Rauch has pessimistically called this condition “Government’s End.”

I don’t really have a solution. In part, this is the nature of our current system of government and the size and complexity of our economy. But the point is, these programs are very difficult to kill, and Fahrenthold’s story is just the tip of the iceberg.

[Cross-posted at Progressive Fix]

Lee Drutman

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow at New America. He is a writing a book about the crisis of the American two-party system.