Recent polls suggest that Mitt Romney won over a significant number of moderates and independents with his strong debate performance last Wednesday. But one moment during the debate must have given some fence-sitters pause: Romney’s attack on Big Bird. When he made it, I cringed a little, thinking it was an unnecessary poke in the eye of PBS’s many fans and an invitation to the Obama campaign to replace “hope and change” with Big Bird — which they have done.
On the other hand, it was a memorable way of reminding folks that everything must be on the table if we are going to balance the budget and start reducing the national debt. And Romney’s test for deciding what we can afford and what we should cut — Are we willing to borrow money from the Chinese to pay for it? — probably kept many Big Bird fans on board.
But there is a more fundamental question Romney might have asked: Why is the federal government funding PBS in the first place, even if we have ample funds to pay for it? Where does funding a television network fit within the constitutionally enumerated powers of Congress?
Perhaps that horse is so long out of the barn that asking the question is pointless. No single person can possibly comprehend the vast array of programs funded by the federal government. The best we seem to do is occasionally recognize that it is not unusual for there to be a dozen or more such programs in multiple agencies doing exactly the same thing. Eliminating such duplication would help reduce federal expenditures, though only modestly. But doing so is difficult.
It’s difficult because every federal program has a constituency, and every member of Congress has an incentive to appeal to as many constituencies as it takes to build a majority in the next election. That’s the reality of majoritarian politics, which is one reason the Constitution’s framers sought to limit the scope of federal power within the federal system.
But at least since the New Deal, the test for whether a federal expenditure is justified has not been the scope of Congress’s constitutional authority, or whether the benefits of funding a program outweigh the costs of borrowing money to pay for it. Rather it has been whether you can persuade the president and a majority in both houses of Congress that it is a good (or good enough) idea. By that standard, who can object to Big Bird, or Jim Lehrer?
So long as the test for inclusion in the federal budget is whether something is a good idea, we are destined for never-ending budget deficits. Even when the economy is booming and tax revenues are overflowing, there are more good ideas than Congress can possibly fund. Noble causes and worthy initiatives abound. But nowhere in the Constitution does it say that Congress has the authority to go out and do good.
There’s little chance that the Supreme Court will come to our rescue and enforce the Constitution’s limits on federal authority. So our only hope is to elect people to federal office who take seriously the notion that the federal government is one of enumerated powers. We need to elect people who are willing to say to their constituents that not every good idea warrants a federal program — that much of what gets debated in congressional elections is irrelevant to the legitimate business of the federal government — that state and local governments are, more often than not, where good ideas should be implemented, if they should be implemented at all.
Big Bird is a cool dude. My two older kids grew up on the early years of Big Bird and his “Sesame Street” buddies. I wish him a long life and am pleased to read that, with nearly $300 million bankrolled, he should be able to live comfortably. And it turns out that the federal contribution to Big Bird’s feeding is chicken scratch, which should make it even easier to ask what gives Congress the power to subsidize Big Bird and his television network.
Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.