The Post recently suggested that we should not consider selling federal assets because doing so would not reduce the deficit enough "The Land of the Free Lunch," June 13 . Such reasoning reminds me of the preacher who railed against free love because it might lead to dancing. The importance of reducing the deficit notwithstanding, the real issue here is precisely what functions the government should be performing as we near the 21st century.
Way back in January, The Post suggested a laundry list of programs that could be phased out or at least trimmed, because they provided subsidies that were either no longer necessary or never were. Included in that list were the subsidies provided by the Small Business Administration, Ex-Im Bank, the Power Marketing Administration, Rural Electrification Administration and others.
Fast-forward to the present: both the Senate and House have passed budgets that eliminate only one program, general revenue sharing. Those programs that so recently appeared to be hungry dinosaurs greedily gobbling up scarce resources have again been treated like domestic pets. All hail Congress' newfound resolve to eliminate obsolete programs.
Attention has been focused on how the Senate version of tax reform would lead to more economic efficiency because the tax code would intrude less on everyday business and consumer decisions. That is indeed a worthy goal; The Post even said so. Why, then, should we not use the same test for spending that is suddenly so appealing for taxing? The fact remains that the federal government performs many functions and owns many assets that intrude on economic decisions as rudely as the tax code. A sampling:
We own two railroads -- one makes a tidy profit; the other might if we let its passengers determine where it should go and how much they would pay to get there. Why we own them is a moot question that belongs to a previous decade? Why we are going to keep them, probably for many years to come, is the embarrassing quandary.
We own two airports right here in Washington and run them rather poorly. How much are they really worth? Certainly more than the roughly $50 million that federal authorities would receive by leasing them to some yet-to-be-created regional airport authority.
We own a network of electrical generation and transmission facilities administered by the Power Marketing Administrations. The proposal to sell them is often met with hoots -- why would anyone want to get rid of the facilities connected to our majestic and picturesque dams?
Why, indeed. Residential power rates in the Bonneville service area, for instance, are less than half the national average. That is unfair, especially since Bonneville and the other PMAs owe the Treasury over $8 billion, up from $3 billion in 1970. No wonder their rates are so terrific.
Well, then, for the sake of argument let us accept that these producing assets are truly our crown jewels and should remain federal property. How about cleaning out the attic and selling off some of the unused, unneeded federal property? Unfortunately, this idea has proven no more popular. Every parcel of excess property resides in a congressional district, and attempts to put such land on the market are met with hastily introduced bills to turn the land over free to local authorities. In that case, we may as well hold on to it for the federal government.
No, selling federal assets won't make the deficit go away, but neither will congressional intransigence at shedding those activities that might be more properly conducted by private entities. In the meantime, I know of a nice little piece of land in Nevada, if you could just get the owner to part with it . . .