Tag: pork barrel

Obama’s Stimulus: A Bit of Pork, a Lot of Opportunism

A study [$] published in the winter edition of Political Science Quarterly considers two possible reasons for why the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) failed to sprinkle Uncle Sam’s magic dust onto those areas of the country that were being hardest hit by the recession. 

Was it because well-positioned politicians were successful in delivering the pork? 

Or was it because the recession created a “window of opportunity” for politicians to quickly spend a bunch of additional money on pet causes, which had the effect of benefitting certain areas of the country? 

I’m going to skip right to the answer: the uneven geographic distribution of stimulus funds had only a little to do with traditional pork barreling and much to do with Obama’s then chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel’s famous quip that “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” 

On the possibility of traditional pork-barreling, the authors found no statistically significant relationship between the distribution of funds and whether a county was represented by a politician serving on a congressional committee relevant to stimulus funding. Nor was a relationship found between funding and counties that were represented by a Democrat in the House or Senate. However, a relationship was found between funding and those counties that overwhelmingly voted for the president: 

There does, however, appear to be a distinct tilt toward counties that were stronger for the Democratic Party in 2008. All else equal, counties at the 90th percentile of Democratic share presidential vote ’08 received between $35 and $36 more per capita in both total funding and infrastructure projects than did counties at the 10th percentile (p ≤ .001)…The effect of presidential politics may be especially relevant for the distribution of ARRA funds because most of the grants, loans, and contracts funded by the stimulus were in discretionary programs overseen by administrative agencies, over which presidents and their political appointees exercise influence. 

On the other hand, the authors found that a county possessing attributes that synched with the policies funded in ARRA were more likely to receive money. For example, a county with a lot of interstate highway mileage made out better than a county that did not. Another example is counties that had a larger share of state and local government workers received a larger share of funds. 

While it’s not surprising that legislation that funds highway infrastructure projects would benefit areas with more highway mileage, let’s remember that the stimulus was sold by many politicians as being necessary to help those with the greatest need. Indeed, as the authors point out, the text of the legislation stated that a main goal was “to assist those most impacted by the recession.” 

The bottom line is that the Obama administration used the economic downturn to spend a bunch of money it otherwise would not have been able to on a stack of its pet policies. In the process, the counties that did the most to put Obama in the White House received a taxpayer-funded thank you in return.  

House Appropriations Chairman Behind Military Pork

After the Republicans took back control of the House following the November 2010 elections, the GOP leadership went with Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers—a.k.a. “The Prince of Pork”—to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee. I wrote at the time that “The support for Rogers from House Republican leaders is a slap in the face of voters who demanded change in Washington.”

I haven’t changed my mind.

A recent article in the New York Times offers up another reminder that the 30-year House veteran’s priority is to funnel taxpayer money back to his district—not downsize the federal government:

In the 1980s, the military had its infamous $800 toilet seat. Today, it has a $17,000 drip pan. Thanks to a powerful Kentucky congressman who has steered tens of millions of federal dollars to his district, the Army has bought about $6.5 million worth of the “leakproof” drip pans in the last three years to catch transmission fluid on Black Hawk helicopters. And it might want more from the Kentucky company that makes the pans, even though a similar pan from another company costs a small fraction of the price: about $2,500…The Kentucky company, Phoenix Products, got the job to produce the pans after Representative Harold Rogers, a Republican who is now the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, added an earmark to a 2009 spending bill. While the earmark came before restrictions were placed on such provisions for for-profit companies, its outlays have continued for the last three years.

According to the Times, Phoenix Products’ president and his wife have been “frequent contributors” to Rogers’s political committee and the company has spent at least $600k on a DC lobbying firm since 2005. Those efforts apparently haven’t gone unrewarded as Rogers “has directed more than $17 million in work orders for Phoenix Products since 2000.”

Readers should keep this story in mind the next time a Republican member of Congress calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment, complains about the growth in government under Obama, and then argues against “dangerous defense cuts.” The bedtime story that Americans often hear is that the federal government must spend gobs of money on defense in order to “keep us safe from our enemies.” I once believed that story—and then I spent some time in the U.S. Senate watching policymakers treat military spending like any other pot of taxpayer money.

[See here for more on downsizing the Department of Defense.]

Abolish the Department of Homeland Security

We’re ten years past 9/11, and over the last decade we’ve shed a number of our liberties and spent wildly to counter a terrorist threat that, as the recent model airplane plot demonstrated, isn’t existential. The bureaucratic legacy of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security, has proven an unwieldy and pork-laden nightmare. It’s time to abolish it.

My recent policy analysis, Abolish the Department of Homeland Security, makes the case for doing so. To begin with, DHS is a management disaster by its very nature:

In creating Homeland Security, Congress lumped together 22 previously unconnected federal agencies under a new Cabinet secretary. That’s a problem, not a solution. And while members of Congress routinely clamor for consolidating Homeland Security oversight in one committee, that seems unlikely: 108 congressional committees and subcommittees oversee the department’s operations. If aggregating disparate fields of government made any sense in the first place, we long ago would have consolidated all Cabinet responsibilities under one person — the secretary of government.

Apart from the structural handicaps that DHS faces, the whole notion of “homeland security” is problematic. The “odiously Teutono/Soviet” concept trends us ever closer to a police state and is particularly prone to pork-barrel spending. As I said in my recent op-ed on the topic:

It allows politicians to wrap pork in red, white and blue in a way not possible with defense spending. Not every town can host a military installation or build warships, but every town has a police force that can use counterterrorism funds to combat gangs or a fire department that needs recruits or a new fire station.

Congress must reform its grant programs and end this wasteful spending. While we’re at it, let’s end federal funding for fusion centers, local- and state-organized intelligence cells that duplicate FBI efforts in counterterrorism and end up labeling nearly anyone who expresses political dissent as a potential terrorist, a point I made at this Capitol Hill Briefing. I’ll be speaking at another Capitol Hill Briefing with Jim Harper today on abolishing the Transportation Security Administration. More information available here.

High-Speed Pork

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson provides a blistering critique of the Obama administration’s plan for a national system of high-speed rail. Samuelson dismisses HSR as “pork-barrel” and “a perfect example of wasteful spending masquerading as a respectable social cause.”

The pork-barrel nature of HSR was underscored by last week’s politically-timed release of $2.5 billion by the Obama administration for rail projects across the country. From the news side of the Washington Post:

Eight days before midterm elections, embattled Democratic candidates cheered the release of billions in federal funds for high-speed rail projects from New Hampshire to California, saying they would help create jobs in their economically bruised states.

The Transportation Department notified lawmakers of the money on Monday and will make a formal announcement on Thursday. The timing of the announcement raised questions about whether the administration was trying to help some Democratic candidates.

The biggest winners of an estimated $2.5 billion pot of money were California and Florida, which have competitive governor, House and Senate races. But numerous other states scored as well.

California will get another $902 million to advance the design and construction of a high-speed rail system initially running from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The money is in addition to $2.25 billion in stimulus money that’s headed to California for high-speed rail.

Samuelson singles out the illogic of California HSR in particular. The state’s “budget is in shambles” he notes and it simply could not afford to fund the debt and operating subsidies that its proposed high-speed rail line would entail. And even if the money were there, it makes no sense for the government to spend billions of dollars on a mode of travel that would benefit so few individuals.

Federal taxpayers can’t afford high-speed rail in California or anywhere else. A Cato essay on high-speed rail points out that the cost of California’s HSR could be $81 billion and a national system could cost $1 trillion. Samuelson is right: the Obama administration’s HSR dreams “represent shortsighted, thoughtless government at its worst.”

The Miscellaneous Tariff Bill: No Trivial Matter

As soon as today, the House may vote on a trade bill that sounds trivial but is in fact quite important: H.R. 4380, the Miscellaneous Trade and Technical Corrections Act of 2010.

Without passing judgment on the specific bill, the miscellaneous tariff bill (MTB) process has been a quiet trade policy success for almost 30 years. MTBs typically contain hundreds of provisions suspending tariffs on imported goods important to U.S. manufacturers but no longer made in the United States. The most common items included in the bills are parts, specialty manufactured products, and industrial chemicals with long, tongue-twisting names. The suspensions are usually temporary, lasting three years.

At least eight such MTBs have been enacted since 1982, most recently in 2006 when Congress passed two such bills. The bills tend to garner broad bipartisan support because the tariff suspensions do not negatively affect specific domestic producers, since no domestic producers compete with the imports, or at least do not object to the tariff suspensions.

A broad range of companies and industries also support MTBs, including the National Association of Manufacturers, because it helps U.S. producers cut costs to better compete in global markets. A 2009 study by Andrew Szamosszegi of Capital Trade Inc. concluded that passage of an ambitious MTB would boost GDP by $3.5 billion and manufacturing exports by more than $1 billion. Passage of an MTB would be right in the spirit of the Obama administration’s National Export Initiative.

Complicating passage of an MTB this time around is the curious stance of GOP leaders in the House, who insist that tariff suspensions be included in an “earmark moratorium.” I’m all for banning spending earmarks, those secretive provisions in huge spending bills that dole out tax dollars for bridges to nowhere and other unnecessary projects. But the provisions of an MTB are a completely different type of legislation.

In contrast to pork-barrel spending, a tariff suspension repeals a narrow tax that falls disproportionately and unfairly on a small group of producers. Instead of granting a favor at the public’s expense, a tariff suspension relieves individual producers of a burden that falls on them and nobody else. Unlike a spending earmark, a tariff suspension creates no new claim on public resources. It does not expand the scope or size of government.

Republicans should suspend their moratorium on tariff suspensions and give the latest miscellaneous-tariff bill a fair hearing.

Souder’s Departure

In case you haven’t heard, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) is departing Congress because of an extramarital affair with one of his staffers. His replacement can only improve Indiana’s Third District on drug policy and limited government (and here).

During the initial hearings on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, Souder was one of two representatives (the other being former Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.)) stressing the need for DHS to get into the drug war business. Souder went so far as to compare drug use to chemical warfare: “more than 4,000 Americans die each year from drug abuse – at least the equivalent of a major terrorist attack.” Rep. Gilman went so far as to propose that the DEA fall under the DHS since, as anyone can see, its supervision of nearly two-dozen subordinate agencies isn’t enough. And drug dealer = terrorist. Clearly.

While it would be preferable for voters of his district to reject pork-barrel spending and the nonsensical drug war, this resignation is not lamentable.

QDR: The Pentagon Hedges

As usual, Ben Friedman beat me to the punch regarding the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) (.pdf), and, as usual again, he nails it.

I do see some value in the exercise, however. So let’s not “forget it” just yet.

By constructing a rationale to justify our existing defense posture, and providing a blueprint for force planning into the future, the QDR can be particularly useful for taking on some sacred cows. For example, the proposals to cancel the CG(X) cruiser, shut down production of the C-17 and the F-22, restructuring the DDG-1000 destroyer and the Future Combat Systems program, are sure to rile up members of Congress who continue to treat the defense budget as just another vehicle for dispensing pork barrel goodies to a handful of constituents. By singling these programs out as inconsistent with our strategic objectives, the QDR forces the advocates of these programs to come up with different rationales, beyond the inevitable “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra.

But the QDR can only do so much. The real culprit driving an enormous defense posture is a national security strategy which presumes that the United States is, and always will be, the world’s indispensable nation. We need a different grand strategy, one that would shift some of the burdens on our friends and allies around the world who have grown too comfortable under the U.S. security umbrella.

There is vague language in the QDR about evolving our strategic posture in different regions, and emphasis on building capacity, but the bottom line is the same as it has been for decades: a de facto permanent presence for U.S. forces in Europe and Asia, and continued attention to security in “key regions” (a phrase that appears seven times), which could be construed as everywhere in the world.

For nearly two decades, the United States has been the policeman for the world. If the senior civilian leadership in the White House had decided to push other countries to take responsibility for their own security, and for security in their respective regions, the QDR might have become a vehicle for responsibly shaping a smaller military that is explicitly oriented toward defending U.S. security. Instead, because the military is convinced that they will be expected to answer all of the world’s 911 calls for the foreseeable future, the Pentagon hedged its bets.

I can’t say that I blame them.