Our Pathological Fear of Cutting Federal Budgets and Agencies

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is the Platonic Ideal of a government entity, at least in these United States. TSA is oppressive, it subjects people to indignities, and its paranoid goal of keeping us safe from terrorists is being done – by most accounts – very poorly indeed.

Okay, perhaps it’s not unique. Still, in spite of what feels like a general air of dislike and disrespect towards those gropers and scanners – and in spite of suggestions to abolish it coming from such diverse entities as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) and Ezra Klein’s mostly painfully-progressive Vox outlet – the TSA will inexplicably continue to exist. Why? Well, because it provides scores of thousands of jobs, because of lingering fears of terrorism, and simply because existence bias demands it.

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee is expected to approve the 2015 Department of Homeland Security budget, which, so said the conservative Blaze optimistically, includes a "chopped" TSA budget. That "slashed" budget is $4.6 billion, but that is still $300 million less than the previous one, so that’s technically progress. Some of the cuts include 3,000 fewer full-time agents, with a $26 million cut to personnel funding. This, it seems, warrants aggressive adjectives like "chopped" and "slashed."

Neither Democrats, nor Republicans are immune to hysterical language when discussing cutting budgets, jobs, or – forgive the utopian dreaming for a moment – entire agencies or departments. Remember last summer’s shut down, and the terrified hand-wringing about "austerity"? Remember those Tea Party "anarchists"? Remember "there’s no more cuts to make"? Hell, talk to your liberal friends about abolishing, say, the Department of Education, and they’re likely to respond as if nobody was educated before Carter gave us that $77 billion boondoggle.

Naturally, the counter (though it’s honestly the same coin, and barely a different side at that) means that Republicans (sans liberty allies like Paul and Rep. Justin Amash) tend to loudly proclaim that if we were to cut the military, DHS, or even the humble TSA more than a token shave and a haircut amount, terrorists would come swarming into the country. Never mind that 9/11 – though the US has enacted no shortage of blowback-provoking, intrusive foreign policy since – was and remains an anomaly in both success and scale. Since there has been no 9/11 while we’ve had a TSA, fork over that 4 billion, buddy!

Indeed, the majority of Republicans in the House actually rejected the Obama administration’s three percent budget decrease of DHS, saying it wasn’t sufficient spending. The overall 2015 budget for DHS is $39.2 billion, which is $887.8 million more than Obama requested. (This includes $222 million in additional funding for the Border Patrol, another collection of folks that sound super great to conservatives, but who are mission creeping their way from the border and into the lives of American citizens every day. "Securing the border" is another bipartisan mandate never to be questioned, no matter the cost to the Fourth Amendment.)

In government,there are always exceptions to professed principles of the right and the left – indeed these exceptions are the rule of Washington, DC. Microscopic reductions in automatic spending lead to howling about either leaving the poor to die (left) or letting the new Bin Ladens roll in and blow up everything (right). Terrorism terror explains "fiscal conservative" tolerance of our suddenly spartan $600 billion military budget. It also excuses a not-yet-built DHS center that is both 11 years behind schedule and a billion and a half dollars over budget. And then again, a former Thinkprogress writer who constantly tweets about Palestinian rights can also cheerfully declare the TSA worth the dehumanizing security measure cost. And again and again, remember that the more Rand Paul, and libertarians or true conservatives were involved in the 2010-2012 TSA backlash, the more liberal outlets backed away from such an unseemly alliance.

In 2012, Gallup recorded that 54 percent of respondents believed TSA was doing an excellent or good job at security measures. Average people are easily goaded into accepting uncomfortable (or worse) things if they’re told it’s in the cause of keeping them safe. I’m not the first person to borrow Lisa Simpson’s tiger-repelling rock gag from The Simpsons as a metaphor for government action of all stripes. But it’s so easy and comfortable, that rock that keeps tigers away! Any government action, from economic stimulus, to gun control, to foreign intervention would have ended up "worse" had we not done anything, so better do something fast.

And on and on it goes.

This is the real, dangerous version of the mythical gridlock that supposedly prevents government from getting anything done. Bipartisan fighting, lobbyists, entitlement programs, and pet issues all leave the ordinary human stuck with leviathan forever getting cozier with their everyday lives. Every political compromise mysteriously results in huge, ever-increasing spending. Nearly every piece of reform ends up meaningless. And the difference in parties is mostly a lie. At the end of the day, the Republicans support bloated cronyism instead of a real market, and the Democrats – aptly proven by Barack Obama, perhaps to be further confirmed by President Clinton 2 – are down to be the war party as well.

Real cuts, real restrictions in power – instead of long leashes and blank checks – would be a start, even directed at one little agency. It’s just not likely to happen. The heroic Rep. Amash tried to clip the NSA’s wings repeatedly. His most recent attempt, the USA FREEDOM Act which he co-sponsored, became so toothless Amash actually voted no on its final version.

Oh, that’s right, the NSA. What’s their budget? Well, who knows exactly? It took whistleblower Edward Snowden to get us a "black budget" intelligence budget number – that would be $52.6 billion, which includes $14 million for the CIA, and at least $10 million for the NSA. The budgets of both agencies increased more than 50 percent between 2003 and 2012. The intelligence community also collectively employs more than 100,000 people. If there are liberals willing to worry over TSA unionization "rights", you can be sure that some of them would be there to clutch their pearls over the prospect of so many job losses if we abolished these security agencies. And the safety! the right would respond in turn. Have we forgotten 9/11 already!? (Hell, nobody was safe from terrorists before 1952, were they? That’s why Truman gave us the NSA.)

There’s so little that can be done in terms of reform before efforts go running into folks screaming about unions, jobs, or the lives of the American people. Yet, it’s America’s only option to stay free, and win back more freedom lost. Both right and left need to accept that empire abroad and soft tyranny at home is financially, practically, and morally unsustainable. But they haven’t yet – nor are they likely to unless forced.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.