Pick an Agency, Any Agency: BTS

As fiscal conservatives continue to seek avenues through which to derail the federal gravy train, it helps from time to time to take a look at the mind-numbingly long list of federal departments and agencies that are on board. Of course, this list is hardly exhaustive – just one that is publicly available – but it can certainly give us some concrete ideas on how and where to cut the spending.

Today: The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS)

About: “The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) was established by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. As the newest operating administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the BTS mission is to compile, analyze, and make accessible information about the nation’s transportation systems; collect information on intermodal transportation and other areas as needed; enhance the quality and effectiveness of the Department’s programs through research and the development of guidelines; promote improvements in data acquisition and use.”

FY 2010 Budget: $28 million (Source)

Any time you see a department, agency, or bureau that we’ve only “needed” for the past 20 years, we probably never needed it in the first place. While the $28 million budget is a drop in the bucket, even when compared to the dubious $742.5 million spent by the entire Department of Transportation, let’s take a look at the functions of the BTS at length.

The BTS compiles data and reports on a wide variety of transportation-related data. Among these reports are aggregated tables and figures on airline traffic, fares, and efficiency. I would first question the need of a distinct bureau to handle this data: don’t we already have the Federal Aviation Administration to keep track of our air traffic?

This narrow view of these functions misses the bigger, far more pertinent question: should the government be handling data on airline traffic or fares at all? In private industry all across the country, companies hire teams of data analysts to perform market research and to improve their bottom lines. The free-market approach creates more jobs, rewards the most efficient companies, and doesn’t cost the taxpayers a dime. Delta or United Airlines not only have a greater incentive to collect and interpret this data, but also a greater incentive to interpret it correctly. The government’s role in aviation market research, when combined with its uniformity and inflexibility in the application of its security standards through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), makes today’s airline industry resemble a socialized service – as is evident from the long lines, high costs, and general mismanagement that pervades the public sector.

The BTS also maintains databases on freight transport via ship, rail, and highway, as well as counts of things like the number of trucks that crossed into Detroit from Canada in any given month. The usefulness of data like this is questionable at best, especially since the informational functions that relate to international commerce are already covered by indexes such as the Baltic Dry Index, and industry-specific information is available through private entities such as the Association of American Railroads.

Aside from all this, the constitutionality of such rigorous data logging by the federal government simply does not exist. Even in today’s shamefully broad interpretations of the Commerce Clause, Congress is only given the power to regulate commerce – not to collect data or to research the ongoing commerce. For the same reasons that the Census Bureau has no authority to ask the ethnicity, age, or social background of citizens, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics has no authority to perform surveys, collect data, and produce informational reports which are unrelated to the regulation of interstate or international commerce. As Tom Woods points out in his most recent book Nullification, “ ‘regulate’ in the eighteenth century meant to ‘make regular’ – that is, to cause to function in a regular and orderly manner – as opposed to the word’s modern meaning that suggests micromanagement and control.”

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA, or “Ice Tea”), which created the BTS, is replete with references to “environmental” concerns about the nation’s transportation system. Apparently these environmental concerns, although already unconstitutionally regulated without Congressional oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency, were justification enough to create a statistical bureau which does precisely nothing relating to the environment. The Bureau was buried near the end of the 155-page bill, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by a Republican president – in other words, a bi-partisan, business-as-usual effort which we’ve grown accustomed to from our lawmakers.

Abolishing the Bureau of Transportation Statistics would shift jobs from the public sector to the private sector. Abolishing the BTS would end government reports and calculations that are rarely if ever used or mentioned even by policy wonks. Abolishing the BTS would eliminate an unconstitutional agency lost in the shuffle of alphabet soup that defines Washington. Abolishing the BTS would save us $28 million – certainly, we have bigger fish to fry, but let’s fry all the fish that we catch. I’m sure we’ll all miss your insights on Motorcycle Trends in the United States, BTS.

: None
Visibility: Little to none
Ease of Abolishing: Very easy
Taxpayer Expense: Very low
Priority: Moderate

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