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What It’s Like When Your Federal Agency Disappears

The latest White House budget calls for the elimination of 19 small federal agencies. Pacific Standard talks to a researcher who lived through that with his own office on the Hill, 28 years ago.
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An aerial photo of the Washington Memorial in Washington, D.C.

An aerial photo of the Washington Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Robert Cook-Deegan felt a shudder of recognition when he saw the news earlier this month that the White House wanted to eliminate funding for 19 independent agencies. Twenty-eight years ago, Congress killed Cook-Deegan’s small government office, the short-lived Biomedical Ethics Advisory Committee, for which he was acting executive director. At the time, he only learned about the committee’s demise after a colleague who’d been watching C-SPAN phoned him. “He called me up and said, ‘Did you know they just zeroed your budget?’” Cook-Deegan recalls. He never did hear from any of his funders, a fact that still rankles him. “I made a few phone calls and realized that if I showed up at work the following Monday, I’d be violating federal law,” he says. “So I quietly shut everything down and I never showed up in the office again.”

Oddly enough, that wouldn’t be Cook-Deegan’s only brush with bureaucratic butchery. In 1995, the Office of Technology Assessment, in operation for 23 years—and for which he had worked before moving to the Biomedical Ethics Advisory Committee—saw its funding slashed by Congress. (Despite lawmakers’efforts, the OTA’s funding was never reinstated.) Cook-Deegan, who is now a professor at Arizona State University, was there at the agency’s goodbye party; he still has his OTA “There to the Bitter End” mug.

It’s still unknown how many of President Donald Trump’s suggested cuts Congress will agree to implement. In any case, threatening so many agencies, many of them with long histories, is a statement to the administration’s philosophy on governing. Curious what it’s like when agencies are killed — and how much money such cuts save—Pacific Standard examined two cases. One is the Parole Commission, which Congress considered eliminating in 2015. The other is the OTA.

The OTA was established in 1972 “as an aid in the identification and consideration of existing and probable impacts of technological application.” It published reports like “Losing a Million Minds,” which predicted how many Americans would suffer from dementia in the future and suggested how the government might finance research and long-term care for sufferers. The OTA also authored a series of papers predicting that Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” anti-missile system was probably bound to fail. Some say eliminating the OTA left Congress uninformed about critical science and technology issues. Others counter that existing agencies like the National Academies and Government Accountability Office can assume the OTA’s old duties.

“Cuts in and of themselves aren’t necessarily bad, but you need to understand the implications of cutting and eliminating programs.”

No one ever systematically examined whether shuttering the OTA saved money, but Cook-Deegan argues it cost the country because the office used to identify when pricey technologies didn’t work. Either way, closing an office isn’t necessarily cost-effective, although it can be, says Diana Maurer, director for law enforcement issues at the GAO.

It’s not even always obvious what can be easily closed. In 2015, Congress asked the GAO to analyze whether it could get rid of the United States Parole Commission. After all, parole for federal prisoners convicted of civilian crimes was abolished in 1987. Maurer led the report that found the Parole Commission, which received $13.3 million in 2015, was still monitoring 17,000 people, including federal offenders who were sentenced before 1987 and offenders from Washington, D.C. (D.C. doesn’t have a state prison system, so residents convicted of crimes go into the federal system.) No other agency has the authority to take on those cases, although it’s certainly possible for officials to rejigger departments’ authorities. The GAO made no recommendations, leaving the choice with Congress.

“Doing away with whole agencies sounds like it’s easy to do, but it’s not,” Maurer says. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a hard look at how federal dollars are being spent. Cuts in and of themselves aren’t necessarily bad, but you need to understand the implications of cutting and eliminating programs.”

As for the OTA, Cook-Deegan believes it fell victim not to the notion that other departments could take on its duties, but to its obscurity. “It’s not about efficiently spending the dollars. It’s about the government’s role and it’s symbolic statements about priorities,” he says. “The smaller the place and the fewer people who make a livelihood working there, the higher your chances of doing it without creating a backlash.” The OTA employed fewer than 200 people and had a budget of $22 million — about $35 million in 2017 dollars — at the time of its demise. The Biomedical Ethics Advisory Committee had been even smaller. Seven of the 19 agencies to which Trump has proposed cutting funding have smaller budgets than the OTA did.