In the face of crushing deficits, is Washington finally serious about curbing its profligate ways? The clearest indication that the answer is "no" is the continued existence of the three national endowments and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Together, they constitute no-brainer cuts - not only because the original rationale of these programs was daft but because their impact is so negligible that nixing them requires no forethought.
To be sure, the $1 billion or so these agencies consume amounts to a spitlet in Uncle Sam's $3.8 trillion budget. Eliminating them won't make even a minor dent in the country's $1.56 trillion budget deficit, which stands at an eye-popping 10.6 percent of the gross domestic product, five times greater than what it was just three years ago. Any serious attempt to stanch the red ink flowing out of Washington must involve Social Security and Medicare reform, which together already ingest a quarter of the budget. However, tackling them will be the political equivalent of containing a Mount Vesuvius eruption, given the vast constituency that depends on them.
By contrast, few besides the government employees who run the no-brainer programs would even notice they were gone - especially because they have long outlived their uselessness.
Both the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which together rake in about $600 million in federal money annually, were founded more than four decades ago to support artistic endeavors that the mass media supposedly didn't. The fear then was that without the enlightened intervention of government bureaucrats, our homes would be flooded with cheap, "Dallas"-type soap operas - and high-brow "Masterpiece Theater"-style programming would go the way of the do-do. Since then, the world has experienced a communications revolution, unleashing a whole host of new media - cable, Internet, the Web - catering to every taste imaginable. The nonprofit arts sector is a $63 billion industry today. Surely it could support the Jim Lehrer "NewsHour."
Likewise, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), NEA's sister organization, was supposed to strengthen teaching and research in the humanities by offering grants to non-mainstream research and scholars. But intellectual philanthropy has become a mega-billion-dollar industry that is supporting a plethora of political and intellectual causes through think tanks, advocacy outfits and all kinds of research institutions. What justification is there anymore for taxpayers spending $161 million (NEH's proposed appropriation this year, up $6 million since 2009) to support struggling scholars by taxing, say, struggling electricians?
But the most egregious of all the agencies might be the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). It was founded by President Reagan in the heyday of the Cold War to contain communism. Communism has since evaporated, and democracy has spread like wildfire in the former Soviet Union. Still, President Obama proposes to hand the NED $109 million this year. This despite the fact that NED has been dogged by controversy, the least of which being that it once spent $1.5 million to defend democracy in that Soviet bastion called France. Worse, although NED gets all its funding from the government, it is structured like a private entity over whose board - an improbable hybrid of representatives of business, unions and other concerns - Congress has little control. The upshot is that sitting presidents have used it to do things abroad that Congress wouldn't approve. In the mid-1980s, for instance, it directed funding to the political opponents of the then-president of Costa Rica - long a beacon of democracy - simply because he opposed Reagan's Nicaragua policy.
Nor is NED alone in such abuse. The arts endowment notoriously bankrolled Andres Serrano's picture of a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of his own urine. Meanwhile, NEH got into trouble in the mid-1990s for funding research into history standards in schools that didn't adequately emphasize America's founding and Constitution.
None of this should come as a surprise, given that these agencies were created precisely to support activities and causes the general public didn't. But the Founders didn't include matters of conscience and aesthetics in Uncle Sam's job description. And now that the private sector is providing the services these organizations were supposed to deliver, there is no reason to force already strained taxpayers to keep subsidizing them.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, lamented after the National Endowment for Democracy was founded: "If we cannot cut this, Lord, we cannot cut anything." That goes for all of them. If Washington wants to demonstrate its seriousness about digging this country out of its fiscal hole, cutting these programs would be a good place to begin.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation. Harris Kenny of Pepperdine University provided valuable research assistance for this column.