Tag: government programs

Rotating Congress

In today’s Washington Post, Dana Milbank does a typically brilliant job deconstructing the activities of Congress. He looks at how members of the various defense committees put their energies into fighting for home-state hand-outs rather than focusing on broader defense issues from a national perspective.

The dominance of parochial interests over the general public interest is, of course, a long-standing problem in Congress. Members from cotton-growing states gravitate to the farm committees in order to defend cotton interests, while members from inner cities gravitate to committees overseeing urban affairs to defend programs that subsidize their constituents.

The result is that Congress spends a lot of money on items that don’t have broad public support, and it spends little time actually considering policies from a national perspective.

A partial solution to the problem would be mandatory committee rotations every two years in the House and Senate. All committee assignments would be made by random selection at the beginning of each Congress.

People will say: “You can’t do that because members on particular committees are often experts in their field.” That would be a good argument if members used their expertise to serve the general interest of the public. Rep. Jack Murtha is an expert on defense issues, and in theory he could be spending his and his staff’s time probing Pentagon operations, reviewing administration defense strategies, overseeing procurement programs to reduce waste, and other public-spirited activities.

But that is apparently not what Murtha and most other members of Congress spend their time doing. Anyone who watches congressional committee action on C-SPAN can see the pattern that Milbank describes–members use their brief time with important witnesses to get in on-the-record statements in support of favored special interests. And their staffs spend most of their time figuring out how to maximize the home-state grab from the budget, not examining big-picture policy issues.

We have a $3 trillion government because members of Congress love to spend money, as a sort of general proclivity. But they are particularly addicted to spending money on their home states. Random committee assignment would help to disrupt that addiction, and it would allow members to adopt a more neutral and critical eye on matters in front of the committees that they were assigned.

Waste, Fraud, and Stimulus

At Capitol News Connection, brought to you each morning by your tax dollars, they reported this morning:

With more than a trillion tax dollars tied up in the Troubled Asset Relief Program and stimulus spending, Congress is trying to figure out how to account for every penny.

Uh-huh. Congress is always on top of our federal dollars.

Coincidentally, just hours after the CNC report, the Government Accountability Office released a report warning about the lack of oversight procedures in the kitchen-sink stimulus bill. And a few days earlier the inspector general for the TARP program reported that Treasury has no real details on how TARP funds are being spent. In fact, IG Neil Barofsky told Congress that there were 20 criminal investigations into possible TARP fraud already underway.

Two months ago Barofsky and the comptroller general had warned of the likelihood of waste in huge new government programs:

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, told a House subcommittee that the government’s experiences in the reconstruction of Iraq, hurricane-relief programs and the 1990s savings-and-loan bailout suggest the rescue program could be ripe for fraud…

Gene Dodaro, acting comptroller general of the U.S., told the subcommittee that a reliance on contractors and a lack of written policies could “increase the risk of wasted government dollars without adequate oversight of contractor performance.”

One of Greg Mankiw’s readers worked on the new Department of Homeland Security and reported recently:

[Y]ou cannot juice up a government agency’s budget by tens of billions (or in the case of the stimulus package, hundreds of billions) and expect them to be able to process the paperwork to contract it out, much less oversee the projects or even choose them with any kind of hope for success. It’s like trying to feed a Pomeranian a 25 lb turkey. It’s madness. It was years before DHS got the situation under control and between the start and when they finally assembled a sufficiently capable team of lawyers, contracting officials, technical experts and resource managers, most of the money was totally wasted.

Linda Bilmes, coauthor with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, analyzes the massive problems in three somewhat smaller government projects — the Iraqi reconstruction effort, Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, and the Big Dig artery construction in Boston — and finds that “in any organization that starts to increase spending very rapidly there are risks of waste, fraud and inefficiency.”

Milton Friedman summed up the basic problem with government waste back in 2002:

When a man spends his own money to buy something for himself, he is very careful about how much he spends and how he spends it. When a man spends his own money to buy something for someone else, he is still very careful about how much he spends, but somewhat less what he spends it on. When a man spends someone else’s money to buy something for himself, he is very careful about what he buys, but doesn’t care at all how much he spends. And when a man spends someone else’s money on someone else, he doesn’t care how much he spends or what he spends it on. And that’s government for you.

Members of Congress can make all the speeches they want about their commitment to ferreting out waste and fraud, but waste and fraud are inevitable in government spending and inevitably large in such massive programs. Some people think that’s fine. At least they’re realistic. But reporters shouldn’t fall for politicians promising to spend unprecedented sums of other people’s money quickly and wisely.

Washington’s Government-Centric View of the World

Too many people in Washington look out upon the beauty and bounty of America and see a vast wasteland, enlivened only by government programs. If government isn’t doing it, they think, then it isn’t being done. When the Republicans threatened to nick the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton wailed that the proposal “not only threatens irrevocable damage to our cultural institutions but also to our sense of ourselves and what we stand for as a people.” Seriously, she thought that if the then-$167 million of the NEA were eliminated, the $37 billion that Americans spent on the arts that year would somehow disappear in a puff of smoke?

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was even more sweeping when he said  in 1992, “The ballot box is the place where all change begins in America” – conveniently forgetting the market process that has brought us such changes as the train, the skyscraper, the automobile, the personal computer, and charitable or self-help endeavors from settlement houses to Alcoholics Anonymous to Comic Relief.

And today the Washington Post weighs in with the chart below. It’s titled “Percent of GDP spent on social/family expenditures,” and it shows the United States at a shockingly low 0.7 percent, while Obama-esque countries like Sweden and France are above 3 percent. But could it really be true that America spends less than 1 percent of its wealth on families and children? Of course not. The proper title for the chart would be “Percent of GDP spent by government on social/family expenditures.” (Indeed, given the federal nature of the United States, it’s possible that the proper title would be “Percent of GDP spent by the central government on social/family expenditures.”) Every American family spends a large portion of its income on children’s needs, and a larger portion on the needs of children and parents.

The point of the article, as the caption above the chart indicates, is to argue that the Japanese government needs to spend more on programs that would encourage women to join the paid workforce. (If the government hired all the mothers in Japan and paid them to care for their neighbors’ children, would that be a better world? It certainly would raise Japan’s position on the Post’s chart!) If that’s what Post reporters believe, they’re certainly free to advocate that position. But they shouldn’t assume or imply that the government is the entire society. Families in Japan and the United States spend most of their income – or at least most of their after-tax income – on child and family needs. The chart ignores that reality and seeks to make Japanese and Americans embarrassed that government taxes and spends less in their countries than in the European welfare states.

 

Feds Pay Farmers to Till the Desert

No, this headline and story is not brought to you by The Onion.

The latest proof that there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary federal program:

As drought forces families in the West to shorten their showers and let their lawns turn brown, two Depression-era government programs have been paying some of the nation’s biggest farms hundreds of millions of dollars to grow water-thirsty crops in what was once desert.

My sympathy for this farmer lies somewhere between that which I have for Bernie Madoff and Ted Stevens:

Jim Hansen, a 69-year-old cotton grower in California’s Central Valley, said his family business would crumble if the government took away low-cost water and the nearly $1.7 million in crop payments he received in 2007 and 2008.

For more on the insanity that is federal farm policy and why the USDA needs to be downsized and/or done away with, click here.