Tuesday, May 15, 2007

First Law of Legislative Thermodynamics

From the front page of today's Washington Post, an article that illustrates the "tryanny of the political status quo" and the First Law of Legislative Thermodynamics: "Creating a government program is much, much easier than killing one."

A Depression-era program to bring electricity to rural areas is using taxpayer money to provide billions of dollars in low-interest loans to build coal plants even as Congress seeks ways to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The beneficiaries of the government's largesse -- the nation's rural electric cooperatives -- plan to spend $35 billion to build conventional coal plants over the next 10 years, enough to offset all state and federal efforts to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions over that time.

The money comes from the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service, an outgrowth of the Rural Electrification Administration created in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to bring electricity to farms. More than 70 years later, the goal of providing electricity to rural areas has long been accomplished, but the federal government is still making the subsidized loans. But rather than declare the mission accomplished and disband the expensive subsidy program, Congress continued it and allowed it to become even more generous.

Although presidents over the years have tried to curtail the rural-electricity lending program, it has survived, proving one of the basic laws of legislative thermodynamics: Creating a government program is easier than killing one.

One possible solution: All government programs like this one should have "sunset" clauses that end the program automatically after a fixed period of time.


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