Making Hard Budget Choices: A No Doubt Boring Look At NHTSA

The President recently released his budget proposal for 2010.  It is a complex, difficult proposal to grasp, contemplating trillions of dollars in spending and trillion-dollar deficits extending, unbroken, into the foreseeable future.

One of the problems for American taxpayers is that the federal government is so large, so sprawling, and so unwieldy that it is virtually impossible to be an informed citizen.  There are too many agencies performing too many functions and producing too much information.  The recent Toyota safety problems, however, have brought NHTSA — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — into focus for me.  I therefore thought that NHTSA might be a good candidate for a closer look at the federal budget, on an individual agency level.

NHTSA is a federal agency that focuses on motor vehicle safety.  Its NHTSA Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Overview, in PDF form, is available here.  The Budget Overview indicates that the total proposed budget would be $867 million, of which $237 million would go to Operations and Research, $4 million would go for the National Driver Register, and the lion’s share — $626 million — would go to National Traffic Safety Grants.  In short, more than 70 percent of NHTSA’s budget doesn’t go to figuring out problems like those that have led to the Toyota recalls.  Instead, it serves as a fund transfer mechanism, where money comes in from the federal taxpayers and then is doled out to states and municipalities through grants.

For purposes of this posting I am going to assume that every cent allocated for Operations and Research and the National Driver Register is used for important federal government purposes.  (This is undoubtedly a generous assumption, because $96 million of the funds budgeted for Operations and Research and the National Driver Register are identified, in Exhibit II-2 of the Budget Overview, as being for “administrative expenses.”)  What about the grants, though?

It turns out that there are eight different grant programs, as well as administrative expenses for these programs, which in 2010 is budgeted for $25 million.  To get more information about the grant programs, you need to go to the NHTSA Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Estimates, which also are available in PDF form here.  According to page 48 of the document, some of the programs are designed to “encourage States to increase seat belt usage” and “child safety seat and child restraint programs.”  These programs include the Seat Belt Performance Grant Program, which is budgeted for $124.5 million, the Occupant Protection Incentive Grants, which is budgeted for $25 million, and the Child Safety and Booster Seat Grants, which is budgeted for $7 million.  In all, more than $150 million in grants go for seat belt-type programs.

Another $139 million is budgeted for Alcohol Incentive Formula Grants, which are designed, according to page 48 of the PDF’d document, to “to encourage States to adopt incentive grants to states for the implementation of effective programs to reduce impaired driving and its tragic consequences.”  The largest grant program, the Section 402 Formula Grants budgeted at $235 million, is intended, also according to page 48, to “support State highway safety programs designed to reduce traffic crashes and resulting deaths, injuries, and property damage,” and under that program “[a] State may use these grant funds only for highway safety purposes; at least 40 percent of these funds are to be expended by political subdivisions (i.e. communities) within the State.”

When you get to the listing of “Anticipated FY 2009 Accomplishments” for the NHTSA grant programs, at pages 51 and 52 of the PDF’d document, you see things like placing a “national media buy” for the “Click It or Ticket” seat belt program and the “Drunk Driving.  Over The Limit.  Under Arrest” program and the participation of all 50 States in those programs.

These NHTSA grant programs help to explain why cutting the federal budget seems to be so difficult for Members of Congress.  One could legitimately conclude that the federal government doesn’t really need to encourage States to have safer roads; one would think the States themselves could and would conclude that is an important goal.  One also could conclude that people really don’t need to be reminded to wear seat belts or that drunk driving is illegal and will be punished.  If individual States or local governments are having significant problems with drunk driving, for example, they can develop and fund their own programs, targeted specifically at the problem areas.

These NHTSA grant programs cost more than half a billion dollars, including the $25 million in administrative costs at the federal government end.  (There also will be costs, of course, at the state and local government end, as those entities hire government workers to design programs that comply with federal regulations, make grant applications, and then themselves administer whatever funds are received from the federal government.)  Yet if Members of Congress voted to eliminate these programs, in order to realize some significant savings, during their next campaign they risk being on the receiving end of attack ads that use those votes to argue that they are in favor of drunk driving, or against seat belt use or children using child restraint seats.  The malign images of those potential ads probably flash through their minds when the budget is discussed, and they take the path of least resistance and vote against any cuts in the grant programs.  The end result is that nothing gets done, federal spending never decreases, and our budget deficit and national debt holes get deeper.

No one supports drunk driving, unsafe roads, or reckless child-rearing activities.  But if we are going to get our federal budget under control, hard choices have to be made.  I think a good start would be to get the federal government out of the grant-making and TV ad-buying game and let States and local governments make their own decisions about how best to enforce existing laws on traffic safety, seat belt use, and punishing drunk driving.  $626 million in savings may not seem like a lot of money — at least, not to a Member of Congress faced with trillions in federal spending — but it is a start, and every little bit of savings is needed if we are going to turn around our deeply troubling budget predicament.

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