Flanked by state and local police officers and firefighters in full uniform, President Obama predicted Tuesday that even a 1 percent cut in overall government spending would have dire consequences.
"Emergency responders like the ones who are here today -- their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded," Obama warned. "Thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off," he continued. "I know that sometimes all this squabbling in Washington seems very abstract, and in the abstract, people like the idea, there must be some spending we can cut, there must be some waste out there. There absolutely is. But this isn't the right way to do it."
Obama's warning was nothing more than partisan nonsense. But he is right about one thing: Funding police, fire and education services at the federal level "isn't the right way to do it."
Take K-12 education, which the federal government had almost zero role in funding until President Carter created the Department of Education in 1979. Since then, federal education spending has grown more than 350 percent. Yet math, reading and science scores are virtually identical to those of the 1970s. Every dime of federal education spending appears to have been completely wasted.
Or take police hiring. The federal government had almost no role in funding before President Clinton created the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, in 1994. COPS was supposed to give temporary grants to local governments to hire police officers until they could secure their own permanent funding. Of course, local governments just got hooked on the federal cash, and some even used it to replace local funding. Worse, a 2006 study found COPS grants were completely ineffective at actually reducing crime.
Finally, look at fire safety, which the federal government had almost zero role in funding before President Bush created the he Assistance to Firefighters Grant, or AFG, program in 2001, and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, program in 2003. The AFG program gave localities money to purchase firefighting equipment, vehicles and fitness equipment. SAFER subsidized firefighter salaries. Local governments purchased plenty of Segways with the newfound federal largesse, but a 2009 study found neither AFG nor SAFER reduced firefighter deaths, firefighter injuries, civilian deaths or civilian injuries.
Not only is federal funding for police, fire and education services completely ineffective, it also makes it harder for citizens to hold local leaders accountable when government fails. Before the federal government began intervening in traditionally local subject matters, it was easier for voters to know whom to punish when crime was up or the schools were bad: their local politicians.
But once the federal government gets involved, who do voters blame when things go wrong? Is it the mayor's fault that crime is up because not enough police officers were hired? Or is it the president's fault because the city's COPS grant wasn't renewed?
Local governments provided education, fire and police service for literally hundreds of years before the federal government got involved. If anything, the sequester is a great opportunity to begin trimming back the federal government's unwarranted involvement in local matters.