Study: The U.S. government has way too many overlapping programs

December 10, 2012

A man fills out forms at a regional office of the Direction of Immigration. (ALEJANDRO ERNESTO/EPA )

It's no secret that the federal government can be a complicated mess. For every given problem, there are often several, if not dozens, of programs intended to tackle it. There isn't just one health care program -- there are Medicaid, Medicare, SCHIP the Affordable Care Act insurance subsidies, the employer insurance deduction, etc. There isn't just one higher education subsidy -- there are the American Opportunity credit, Pell grants, Perkins loans, Stafford loans, etc. And that's not even every federal program that serves those two sectors.

It's certainly confusing, but is it a policy problem? Johns Hopkins' Steve Teles has a provocative new paper arguing that it is — and that it's the Constitution's fault.

In his paper, the political science professor coins the term "kludgeocracy" to refer to our country's patchwork system of service delivery. It's a play on the term "kludge," used in computing and engineering to refer to a hastily put together, hopefully temporary workaround for a problem. Instead of designing programs from the ground up to fix problems, Teles argues, we've become reliant on kludges.

That has real costs. Take the tax code, a primary area for kludges: Every credit, deduction and exemption has its own special rules and requirements, even in cases where multiple tax breaks are meant to deal with the same issue. You can't do the same thing with a 401(k) that you can with a Roth IRA, for instance. All told, excessive tax compliance costs the U.S. economy about $163 billion annually, when direct and indirect costs are taken into account.

More insidiously, kludges can cause critical infrastructure features to fail. The levee system in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit, for example, was jointly administered by a number of agencies, a policy kludge that resulted in a system that wasn't fit to the task.

What's behind this? Teles blames the rise of kludges on America's distinctively high number of "veto points," or junctures at which a policy can be blocked. Think about how a bill becomes law. It has to be introduced in both the House and Senate, pass at least one committee in each house, get a majority of the House and 60 votes in the Senate, be signed by the president and not be struck down by the Supreme Court.

That's a lot of hurdles to jump over, especially compared with European parliamentary systems in which there's a majority party in power and more or less anything supported by the prime minister passes. And for a bill to become U.S. law, there's a lot of people who need to be satisfied, or at least not irritated. That encourages skid-greasing through pork- barrel spending and by adding new programs rather than replacing old ones, given that current programs probably have someone in power who wants to keep them.

Teles's argument makes some intuitive sense, but a cross-country comparison casts some doubt on this explanation. The Social Security Administration keeps an excellent database of social welfare programs throughout the world, and at first glance it's not at all clear that countries with fewer veto points have fewer federal programs in effect, or more consolidated ones.

France, which with five veto points is on the high end of European countries, has five types of elderly and survivor benefit programs. But the United Kingdom, which has at most two veto points (the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the latter of which rarely interferes) has a whopping 13 programs for its elderly. This is an imperfect measure, to be sure, but the fact that a country with as streamlined a legislative process as the UK has arrived at such a kludge-y conclusion casts some doubt on the institutional explanation for kludge in the United States.

Nonetheless, Teles has touched on a real problem that needs more discussion. Too much complexity in federal policy is not just confusing; it's a problem that makes government more expensive and less effective. 

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Sarah Kliff · December 10, 2012