Snow Removal and Lessons for the Federal Budget

Posted February 12, 2010 at 3:01pm

Given the record-setting amount that fell on Washington, D.C., last week and the havoc it created, you could have guessed that snow somehow would be part of this week’s Fiscal Fitness.

[IMGCAP(1)]What you probably didn’t know or couldn’t possibly imagine is that snow, or more correctly, snow removal, is a great way to think about one of the age-old federal budget questions: Is Washington spending too much or too little on a particular activity?

As a federal budget person, I tend to see fiscal lessons in almost everything. Not unlike a cardiologist who looks at her or his world through heart-pumping and artery-blocked glasses, the spending and revenue implications of events that to others seem at best only marginally related to the budget often are the first things that occur to me. So it’s hardly surprising that I was thinking about the costs of snow removal as I watched the plows go by and saw even the major thoroughfares reduced to one tough-to-drive-on lane with parking nowhere to be found.

This time, however, the budget implications of getting the snow off the streets and the above-ground Metro stations cleared weren’t occurring just to me. Television reporters on all of the stations in D.C. kept asking whether, given how long it was taking to clear the streets, the area governments had been adequately prepared to deal with the three-plus feet of snow and whether they should have spent more to be ready. Not surprisingly, as people looked longingly at their buried-in-snow cars and wondered if they were going to be able to drive them again before Easter, the answer always seemed to be that more should have been done.

Although it has always been about things other than snow removal, this precise question has been part of the federal budget debate as well. Back in the 1970s, one of the truly classic and much-read budget-related books was Alain Enthoven and Wayne Smith’s “How Much Is Enough?” And over just the past year, the appropriate size of an economic stimulus was (and still is) heavily debated.

In Washington, as elsewhere, the answer should always (but seldom does) depend on what you’re trying to achieve. Do you want the local governments in the Washington, D.C., area to be prepared to deal immediately with the large multiple snowfalls that occurred last week even though they may only happen once in a generation, or do you want them to be ready for and spend under the assumption that you’ll only receive average amounts?

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s blizzard, many were saying that the governments needed to buy more equipment, should have more sand, chemicals and salt for the roads, and had to have more contracts in place with snow-removal companies. Even though the major and many side roads were clear two days after the blizzard ended, they wanted the governments to commit to a higher standard of removal so that there would be less disruption in the future.

That may appear to be a rational approach during the worst winter snow-wise in Washington history. But what will happen two years or so from now when snowfall is at average levels and the additional equipment bought after the blizzards of 2010 not only hasn’t been used, but the local governments are paying a great deal for them to be maintained? How long will it take for someone to call this waste, fraud and abuse and demand that it be stopped?

Regardless of whether it’s missile defense, child obesity or interstates, the amount the federal government spends on its programs should emulate budgeting for snow removal by being based on an agreement on what’s to be achieved, that is, on the equivalent of how fast we want the snow plowed, the streets cleared and the Metro operating at all stations.

The failure even to ask questions like these in the federal budget process let alone answer them means two things. First, spending typically is unrelated to program goals. Second, rather than prevent a problem from occurring, it’s often easier for Washington to wait for it to occur and then spend whatever is needed to deal with it. It may not be smart budgeting, but it’s definitely prudent politics.

The federal government’s response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita is the most obvious recent example of this. For years, spending to improve the levees was delayed and cut because there was little consensus about the goal, and the need wasn’t immediately obvious. Then, when the once-in-a-century flood occurred during his administration, self-professed fiscal conservative George W. Bush suddenly channeled Lyndon Johnson and declared that Washington would spend whatever it took to clean up the mess and prevent it from occurring again.

That was the federal equivalent of local governments tacitly deciding to budget based on the assumptions either that large multiple snowfalls wouldn’t occur or that, if they did, the snow would melt relatively quickly so there was no need to be ready to do much cleanup anyway. When the unexpected did happen, there would be little opposition to big emergency spending to get the roads fully and immediately cleared, the snow hauled off to some warmer climes where it would melt, and the Metro operating.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”