Abdelnour: It’s Time to Clean Out the President’s Cabinet

Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:30am

During the presidential campaign, Cabinet departments are wide targets for candidates touting efficiency and fiscal responsibility. This makes for a nice sound bite, but how badly are these departments performing?

It is high time to have a top-to-bottom review of all Cabinet-level departments to determine the purpose, mission and efficacy of the organization. Every Cabinet department has room to improve. The following are the worst in terms of mismanagement and straying from their intended mission.

The Interior Department manages about 20 percent of the nation’s land. Does the federal government really need to own that much land? Much of it is rich in natural resources that are not developed because of Bureau of Land Management regulations and other Interior Department policies. It would be prudent to auction off these resources to those who are best experienced at developing them responsibly.

The Agriculture Department has 17 different agencies and 15 different offices within the department, including the Office of Environmental Markets, which supports the development of emerging markets for carbon, water quality, wetlands and biodiversity.

The department employs more than 100,000 people and has an annual budget of about $95 billion. That is one employee for every 22 farms, at an average expenditure of $50,000 per farm. What is the USDA doing to protect and nourish the farming tradition? What is it doing to preserve the integrity of our food chain? What is it doing to protect Americans from the proven, impending threat of genetically modified crops?

According to a recent article in Popular Science magazine, biotech companies will soon perform their own studies to determine whether their genetically modified seeds are safe for the environment, according to a new federal plan.

That means companies such as Monsanto, which provides about 90 percent of the world’s transgenic crops, will help the government decide whether their own products should be approved. The USDA will let the firms do the research themselves and submit data to the government. Isn’t that the same logic the Securities and Exchange Commission used to allow the banking industry to regulate its credit leverage ratios?

The mission of the Energy Department is to advance the national, economic and energy security of the United States. It needs to spend more time doing that. Somewhere during the past 10 years, the DOE emphasis has shifted from the development of reliable, clean and affordable energy to administering federal funding for scientific research for alternative energy technologies. The market, not the federal government, should decide which technologies are promoted. The DOE should be educating the public and promoting the relative safety and efficacy of current nuclear reactor technologies; we should be building nuclear power plants.

The Health and Human Services secretary oversees a budget of about $700 billion and about 65,000 employees. The department’s programs are administered by 11 operating divisions, including 8 agencies in the U.S. Public Health Service and three human services agencies, including the administration of Medicare and Medicaid, which together provide health insurance to one in four Americans. Why, again, do we need Obamacare? Could we not achieve a better return on our health care dollar by simply improving the effective management of such a large organization?

The Housing and Urban Development Department could also be revamped. The federal government should only enforce fair housing laws. Home ownership is not a right, and the department’s role in supporting home ownership for lower- and moderate-income families through its mortgage insurance and rent subsidy programs should be re-evaluated for its effectiveness, with repetitive and overlapping programs trimmed back.

Programs such as community economic development, housing rehabilitation, public housing and homeless assistance should be handled with block grants at the state and local levels, with the federal role being that of arbiter and enforcer of program standards and quality of service.

The Transportation Department has been thoroughly compromised in its mission to ensure a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system in this country. The DOT has 55,000 employees and a budget of about $70 billion, and our roads and bridges, constructed by union labor, are crumbling. Our rail system is slow, inefficient and consistently loses money. Airlines are regulated into the ground, and it is getting harder and harder to get there from here.

Of all of the Cabinet departments, the Veterans Affairs Department should have access to the latest technology and most efficient service delivery models. It should have the highest-trained and most dedicated staff and the most modern facilities. It is the agency responsible for administering benefit programs for veterans, their families and their survivors. It is a shambles and delivers substandard care and service to those who risked life and limb to defend this nation and protect the blessing of liberty. The Veterans Affairs secretary oversees a budget of about  $90 billion and a staff of about 235,000 employees.

It is more necessary than ever to apply market principles to managing the government. Politicians have cried about government waste for years. The reasons for action are now clearer than ever.

Ziad Abdelnour is president and CEO of Blackhawk Partners Inc., founder and chairman of the Financial Policy Council and author of “Economic Warfare: Secrets of Wealth Creation In the Age of Welfare Politics.”