After six budget showdowns, big government is mostly unchanged
Not all of it was actually needed. In 2010, the government’s 6,700 unused “assets” contained 39 million square feet of space.
So how much space is sitting empty now? The government can’t say. Officials can cite examples of unneeded buildings that it’s gotten rid of. An old heating plant in Georgetown was sold for $19.5 million. A Navy warehouse in Brooklyn went for $10 million. But what’s the total?
“No public update at this time,” a federal spokesman said.
One reason the government stakes out so much office space is the common federal government practice of duplication. That’s when two arms of government — sitting in two different places — do the same job at the same time. Or three arms.
Or four. Or 226.
The administration now counts 226 separate programs that aim to promote education in the “STEM” fields: science, technology, engineering and math. Many overlap, according to outside audits. Some overlap substantially. This year, the administration proposed to consolidate them in the name of efficiency.
The number should shrink, they said. All the way down to 110.
Even in the deficit-obsessed House, many legislators thought that might be too few.
“A little overlap and a little duplication may not be bad,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), whose appropriations subcommittee considered the White House plan. Wolf said the White House didn’t have good data on which of the 226 worked and which didn’t.
So why take the risk of cutting a good one?
“I would rather err on the side of not doing something that puts us behind” other countries, Wolf said. Other legislators worried about institutions back home — museums, schools, hospitals — which got grants from this maze of overlapping programs. If it got simpler, they might get nothing.
So the House said no. The Senate did, too. The idea fizzled.
Elsewhere, the Obama administration has managed to pare down other duplicative programs. It closed more than 484 unneeded data centers and reduced the number of employee e-mail systems in use at the Department of Agriculture to one. Down from 21.
But in STEM education, the number of programs stayed at 226.
Where do you see government spending? Click here to add your insight to reporter David Fahrenthold’s series on government spending.