Even before the mandatory across-the-board cuts in federal spending known as sequestration took effect March 1, President Barack Obama’s administration resorted to the Washington Monument Strategy, warning of reductions in the most popular and visible governmental services.

The term refers to the likelihood that in the face of any government shutdown or budget cuts, the National Park Service would shut the Washington Monument. The idea is to induce outraged would-be tourists to deluge their representatives and senators with complaints.

This time, with $1.1 trillion in automatic spending reductions through 2021 on the line, similar alarms were raised by the Defense Department, which threatened significant furloughs for its 700,000 civilian employees, and by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who warned of the removal of inspectors from U.S. meat plants, an interruption of food aid to needy infants, and the closing of forest campgrounds and picnic sites. The Department of Homeland Security predicted longer lines at airport security checkpoints.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The disingenuousness of the Washington Monument Strategy has been regularly exposed by Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who has identified ways to rein in runaway spending without disrupting vital services and programs, impairing essential functions or harming the poor and vulnerable.

First Targets

He offers some common-sense examples:

-- Start with low-priority spending at the Department of the Interior, such as “drones programs, sheep studies and beaver conferences.”

-- At the Federal Aviation Administration, the furloughs should be applied disproportionately to the more than two-thirds of agency employees who aren’t air-traffic controllers and are, therefore, less essential.

-- In the federal judiciary, “prevent furloughs, hearing cancellations, and case dismissals by halting non-essential conferences and excessive construction projects.”

-- At all federal agencies, “avoid critical furloughs by first eliminating employees” who “do not show up for work, who are not performing official work, or are simply not working at all.”

Here is my contribution to the target list:

-- The National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences funds a range of frivolous, trivial and poorly designed research, such as how to ride a bike, trends in naming babies and when dogs became man’s best friend.

The research performed by this unit is systematically less essential and relevant to the nation’s needs than those of the other directorates, such as engineering, geosciences, and mathematical and physical sciences. The SBES Directorate’s budget should be cut, and its grant review and funding apparatus moved elsewhere.

-- The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health is plagued by a flawed mandate and the breakdown of effective peer review. Its mission is “to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and alternative medicine interventions and their roles in improving health and health care.”

But as Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has written, “There is no such thing as alternative medicine. There’s only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t.”

NIH Funding

The center’s $130 million annual budget should be redistributed throughout the rest of NIH to soften the impact of the sequestration on more deserving research and on furloughs.

-- Most day-to-day evaluations and approvals of drugs, medical devices and food products are performed quite autonomously within the Food and Drug Administration’s decentralized units. Yet the FDA contains huge, largely unnecessary and constantly expanding bureaucracies that serve the commissioner and a horde of deputy commissioners, associate commissioners and assistant commissioners, with their attendant hangers-on.

These should be trimmed drastically, and in the short-term, these bureaucrats should be furloughed instead of the scientists who review product applications.

-- The FDA convenes many unnecessary meetings of its advisory committees, which are made up of nongovernmental experts in various disciplines. At one time, these gatherings were used appropriately and sparingly to offer advice about arcane or controversial policy issues or about decisions on individual products. They have evolved into a way for FDA officials to shift blame in case a decision backfires.

Although it has become something of a cliche, there is significant waste and abuse in federal agencies. With or without the sequestration cuts, ill-conceived and counterproductive programs can be trimmed revised or eliminated. That would free up resources for essential functions, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of regulation, reduce the costs of research and development performed by the private sector, stimulate innovation, and create jobs.

There isn’t a single federal agency that couldn’t do more with less, if there were the will to do so. But bureaucrats’ self-interest is served not by frugality and efficiency but by expanding their responsibilities, commanding larger budgets and carving out grander empires. And the Obama administration is committed not to cutting spending, but to increasing it. Hoping for anything else in the short term is, to quote the economist Milton Friedman, like trying to design a cat that barks.

(Henry I. Miller, a doctor and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology.)

To contact the writer of this article: Henry I. Miller at henry.miller@stanford.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.