Ronald Reagan once observed that nothing lasts longer than a temporary government program. How right he was.
Shortly before Reagan came to Washington, Democrats and Republicans agreed to do something that would be unthinkable for today's Democratic Party. They passed legislation to end, once and for all, the inefficiencies and costs of federal regulation of airlines and took the government out of the business of micromanaging and subsidizing the industry. It was a spectacular success. The enactment of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 set the stage for delivering trillions of dollars of consumer benefits and ushered in an era of relying on the forces of the marketplace to determine the price, variety and quality of air services. It is now commonplace for the unsubsidized domestic airline industry to fly close to 1 trillion passenger miles a year without a single fatal accident. Reagan confirmed those benefits, and got rid of a government agency in the bargain, when he signed the Civil Aeronautics Board Sunset Act of 1984.
Since it is impossible for the federal government to let go of anything entirely, it included in the Airline Deregulation Act the Essential Air Service program so that it still could subsidize something. The program originally was supposed to be temporary, to ease the transition to a deregulated market. It would preserve for a time the continuation of air service to small communities that might lose service when the industry was given the freedom to abandon unprofitable routes. Congress authorized the subsidy program for 10 years.
As Reagan predicted, this temporary program eventually would take on a life of its own. It was extended by Congress and then made permanent. Thirty-four years later, it costs nearly $200 million a year. Government subsidies, you see, create their own narcotic-type dependency. Businesses, and often communities, are no different from individuals in that respect. Government, it seems, is an equal-opportunity pusher.
As for being a paradigm of government waste, the program has fulfilled its destiny nicely. This month, the Department of Transportation proudly announced that it had awarded a grant of more than $4 million in annual essential air service subsidies to the two desperately isolated communities of Hagerstown, Md., and Lancaster, Pa. Never mind that each of them is within easy driving distance of major international airports in their own states, and that unsubsidized small businesses that actually pay taxes offer convenient shuttle services to those airports. The department apparently concluded that it was essential that both of these suburbs also have federally subsidized service on small airplanes to Washington Dulles International Airport, which is in Virginia. It was not an easy thing to do. At first, no one was interested in the department's offer, and it actually had an opportunity to save the taxpayers money. But the bureaucrats kept after it and eventually found a taker by increasing the amount of money they were prepared to waste. After "careful consideration," the department then selected the only company to apply for the subsidy. Apparently by government standards, that was a success.
One might think that a government that cannot pay its bills would have second thoughts about the folly of spending money so needlessly. The local newspaper in Lancaster carried an article about the proposed service, and local bloggers astutely observed that it was really a taxpayer rip-off. So the department had a hint. But whether it is a waste of money isn't relevant -- it just does not matter. No one in government thinks about that. In fact, the government has become as dependent on spending and wasting money as its beneficiaries are on receiving it. It is not just the cost of the subsidy itself. The "essential" air service requires a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) contingent at the airports, which gives another massive federal agency the opportunity to waste even more money. In fact, Hagerstown Regional Airport recently announced that it has received next-generation baggage screening equipment from the TSA, apparently to speed the processing of the hopefully dozens of subsidized passengers who actually might use the airport.
This election will give the country a choice. Like Reagan, Paul Ryan understands government and its profligacy. Perhaps he understands it better than anyone else in Washington today. He also knows that you can't ethically ask taxpayers for more money until you stop wasting what you have. Traditionally responsible Democrats such as Erskine Bowles understand how desperately the country needs that kind of leadership. President Obama's team does not. Those now in power do not care, or perhaps know, how far off course the country is, so long as they sit in the cockpit. That is all that is essential to them.
Warren L. Dean Jr. is a lawyer and an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law Center.