Tag: taxpayer money

Extinguish Federal Grants to Firefighters

Last week, the House passed a $40.6 billion Homeland Security appropriations bill for fiscal 2012. The Constitutional Authority Statement for the bill cited Congress’s authority to appropriate money and the General Welfare Clause. Citing the General Welfare Clause might be appropriate for activities associated with the common defense of the nation. However, it is not an appropriate justification for something like the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant program, which distributes federal taxpayer money to local fire departments.

Firefighting is a purely local concern and should be funded by those who benefit from a local fire department’s services. Why in the world am I paying federal taxes in Pennsylvania to a bureaucracy in Washington so that it can turn around and send a check (minus a cut for the bureaucracy) back to my local fire department as well as to thousands of other fire departments across the country?

A look through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program’s current list of grant recipients shows that the small town I currently reside in received almost $750,000 this year. Shouldn’t I be happy? Well, no, because fire departments from Snowflake, AZ, to Dummerston, VT, also received handouts. Okay, but isn’t the federal program helping to make me safer? Well, the website for my local fire department says that it has been “protecting our community for over 150 years.” Hmm, somehow it managed to protect the community for 140 years prior to the AFG program’s creation in 2001.

As for the federal bureaucracy’s cut, FEMA’s website indicates that highlighting “success stories” is an important part of the agency’s job. Not only is there a webpage devoted to success stories, FEMA kindly provides a handy template to make it easier for grant recipients to share their stories. FEMA administrators like photographs, but “action shots” are apparently the key to winning their hearts:

Submitting photographs that help illustrate your story are encouraged and recommended. Action shots showing people who benefited from the success and photographs of the equipment and emergency response effort are highly effective. High resolution photos are desirable. If possible, please submit your photos as an attachment in .jpeg, .gif, .tif or .bmp format. Please provide descriptions for your photographs if possible so reviewers can understand what is occurring in the photograph.

The webpage then lists contact information for 10 different officials who are tasked with receiving submissions from a particular grouping of states. I’d be curious to know how many FEMA officials it takes to screw in a light bulb.

Sadly, 147 House Republicans joined all Democrats to restore $320 million for the firefighter grants during floor deliberation of the Homeland Security bill. Only 87 Republicans were okay with cutting the program’s funding from $800 million to $350 million. It was bad enough that the GOP wanted to give the program a dime. That they justified the expenditure under the Constitution’s General Welfare Clause adds insult to injury.

In a Cato essay on constitutional basics, Roger Pilon explains that the clause was not intended to provide cover for Congress to spend money on whatever it wanted:

[The General Welfare Clause] is followed by a detailed listing or enumeration of activities that Congress is allowed to engage in. Were this passage to be read simply as authorizing Congress to tax and spend for the general welfare, as many read it today, Congress would have been granted all but unlimited power and the enumeration of particular powers immediately thereafter would have been to no purpose. Thus, the passage must be read as permitting taxing only for those enumerated ends; and the clause restricts such funding to the general welfare only, not to the welfare of particular parties.

Remember back in January when the fresh Republican majority in the House made a show of starting the new session of Congress with a reading of the Constitution? It was a nice gesture, but with Republicans voting almost 2 to 1 to restore funding for a parochial grant program, it remains an empty one.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Farm Subsidies)

The Washington Times says that the upcoming farm bill re-write could “sow division in the GOP.” While House Republican leaders John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Kevin McCarthy voted against the 2008 farm bill, the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), is a dedicated supporter of farm subsidies.

The Times recalls Boehner’s comments on the 2008 farm bill:

“The farm bill has often been abused by politicians as a slush fund for bizarre earmarks and wasteful spending projects, and the latest version … is no different,” Mr. Boehner, then the GOP minority leader, said at the time.

It’s too bad then that the Boehner-friendly Republican Steering Committee, which decided the committee chairs, didn’t appear to blink at handing the agriculture committee gavel to a key supporter of the “slush fund.” And it’s not as if Lucas has been circumspect in his intentions. Lucas’s agriculture issues section on his website, which hasn’t been updated since the Republicans took back the House, makes that perfectly clear:

As Ranking Member of the Agriculture Committee, I have long been a champion of voluntary agriculture conservation programs. During the drafting of the 2002 Farm Bill, I worked to secure the largest ever increase in programs such as Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, and many others. In the 2008 Farm Bill, I advocated for renewable energy provisions to be included in the farm bill which would allow rural areas to play a larger role in making the U.S. less dependent on foreign sources of energy. I am proud that the 2008 Farm Bill devotes a funding stream to renewable energy research, development, and production….

[I] will work closely with Chairman Peterson and other members of the committee to ensure that cuts are not made to agriculture producers – farmers and ranchers.

Lucas isn’t shy about touting his support from the myriad farm lobby groups either:

I have been proud to receive recognition from various agriculture groups for my work in support of their concerns. The American Farm Bureau Federation has presented me with its “Friend of Farm Bureau” award for supporting Farm Bureau issues in Congress in 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006. In both 2002 and 2003, the National Farmers Union recognized me with the “Presidential Award for Leadership” for issues important to rural America. NFU also recognized me with the “Golden Triangle Award”, which is given to those who have demonstrated outstanding leadership on issues affecting family farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. In 2002 the Oklahoma Wheat Commission presented me with their “Staff of Life” award for voting in favor of wheat growers and farmers 100 percent of the time. And for two years running, the National Association of Wheat Growers named me one of only 11 “Wheat Champion” Members of Congress for superior action in Congress in support of the wheat industry.

Last year, Lucas criticized the Obama administration for proposing some minor agriculture program cuts, including a proposal to limit direct subsidy payments to farmers with more than $500,000 in annual sales.

Frank Lucas criticized the Obama administration for merely wanting to deny farmers with a half million dollars in sales from grabbing taxpayer money, but take a look what he has to say in a section on his website on “lower taxes and government spending:”

Spending in Congress has reached historic levels during the 111th Congress. The fiscally irresponsible behavior of former Speaker Pelosi and President Obama has driven our national debt level to the point that it is almost equal to the size of our entire economy. This is unacceptable and it must stop.

I have opposed – and will continue to oppose – spending initiatives that dramatically increase the size and scope of the federal government while adding to our already massive national debt. I have long been a supporter of tax reform and will continue to fight against increases in taxes and wasteful federal spending. Congress must get back to the business of fiscal responsibility and strive for a balanced budget without raising the taxes of hard-working Americans.

Lucas must know that “taxes of hard-working Americans” are pouring into the pockets of generally high-income farm businesses at the rate of $15 billion to $35 billion annually. While Lucas may be a “Wheat Champion” he sure isn’t a Taxpayer Champion, at least not on agricultural issues.

See this Cato essay for more on agriculture subsidies.

Government Cheese

Self-anointed elites have been relentless in prodding government planners to apply their enlightened solutions for the purported benefit of the ignorant masses. As a result, the federal government has become a Super Nanny monitoring and guiding the intimate activities of the nation’s 300 million inhabitants. However, the government is not altruistic and does not have the solutions for how people should live their lives.

The amalgamation of programs and regulations that constitute the federal government is basically a reflection of the myriad special interests that have won a seat at Uncle Sam’s table. Government consists of fallible men and women who are naturally susceptible to pursuing policies that have less to do with the “general welfare” and more to do with rewarding the privileged birds incessantly chirping in their ears.

One result is that government programs often work at cross purposes. A perfect illustration is the confused U.S. Department of Agriculture, which spends taxpayer money subsidizing fatty foods while at the same time setting nutritional guidelines with the purported aim of getting Americans to eat healthier.

The New York Times explains:

Domino’s Pizza was hurting early last year. Domestic sales had fallen, and a survey of big pizza chain customers left the company tied for the worst tasting pies.

Then help arrived from an organization called Dairy Management. It teamed up with Domino’s to develop a new line of pizzas with 40 percent more cheese, and proceeded to devise and pay for a $12 million marketing campaign.

Consumers devoured the cheesier pizza, and sales soared by double digits. “This partnership is clearly working,” Brandon Solano, the Domino’s vice president for brand innovation, said in a statement to The New York Times.

But as healthy as this pizza has been for Domino’s, one slice contains as much as two-thirds of a day’s maximum recommended amount of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease and is high in calories.

And Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture — the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting.

Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese.

Your tax dollars are being used by the USDA to help Domino’s Pizza (and Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, and Burger King according to the article) sell its product. Of course, the government isn’t trying to help these fast food giants so much as it’s trying to help a particularly favored special interest: farmers.

While calls to get rid of subsidies for Dairy Management would obviously be on target, the better move would be to get rid of the entire USDA, which the New York Times comically refers to as “America’s nutrition police.” The USDA has been around for almost 150 years, and yet Americans have never been fatter. If there’s a solution to America’s obesity “problem,” it won’t be found in Washington. In a free society, the only solution is to make individuals responsible for the consequences of their own decision-making.

See these essays for more on downsizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If There’s Money, We Want It! (Whatever “It” Is.)

There seems to be a real trend in Washington to declare support for a bill now, but actually have the bill exist later. It’s been most obvious in the health care marathon, where often purely notional pieces of legislation have been boisterously celebrated or bemoaned for months. It’s also the case with the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which may or may not be tacked on to health-care reconcilation because supporters don’t, you know, want to actually debate the thing. Currently, there is no Senate version of SAFRA, and it’s unclear what changes would need to be made to the House version to make it reconcilable.

So why are so many people willing to take big chances on legislation that only exists in the fertile minds of congresspeople? As this Inside Higher Ed article on community colleges illustrates, it’s often because they want taxpayer money – $12 billion is the community colleges’ hoped for windfall – no matter what:

Sensing the urgency of the moment on Capitol Hill, many community college advocates believe that budget reconciliation is the most likely route for passage of the AGI this year. They argue that time is of the essence for those community college trustees and presidents visiting town for the summit to lobby their representatives and senators without focusing on quibbles over the bill.

“I know there’s a lot of discussion for many of you [about] what’s in the program,” said Jee Hang Lee, ACCT director of public policy. “‘What’s in the final program for SAFRA? What’s in the final program for AGI? What is it going to look like?’ What we’ve heard is that, for the most part, the House and Senate staffs and the White House have something in place. I don’t know what it looks like. I don’t know many people who do know what it looks like. But they have a broad agreement on the structure of these programs, so that’s nice to know that they have because that means it’ll likely get funded.”

Still, he advised visiting trustees and presidents to be direct in their support for the bill and wait until later to work out potential kinks in its specific provisions.

“My point is that you just need to press hard to get this money and get it passed, and we can work out some of the details, I guess, later, I guess through the negotiated rule-making period,” Lee said.

Hmm. And I guess money grabs like these explain a good bit of why the national debt is now approaching $12.6 trillion.

Ray LaHood as Santa Claus

U.S. News & World Report’s columnist Paul Bedard reports that Transportation secretary Ray LaHood told him that it’s fun playing Santa Claus to states and cities around the nation.

So let’s take a look at some recent examples of DOT gift-giving with federal taxpayers’ money:

  • DOT’s Federal Highway Administration helped restore an old brewery in Petosi, Wisconsin with a $450,000 gift. That should make taxpayers want to drink.
  • Dolgeville, New York intends to use DOT stimulus money to repair sidewalks even though the village acknowledges that the new sidewalks will have to be torn up and replaced again due to impending water and sewage line upgrades. Keynes would be particularly proud of this one. Last year the city received a $1 million gift from DOT for the “installation of period street lights, trees, accent pavers, street furniture and sidewalk improvements” on the city’s Main Street.
  • The Michigan Department of Transportation plans on spending $5 million in federal DOT money on a bunch of projects that are of unquestionable national importance: cobblestone streets in Grand Rapids; exhibits at the Detroit Science Center; rehabilitating the historic Quincy and Torch Lake Railroad Engine House in the Upper Peninsula; a bridge for bicyclists and pedestrians over the Clinton River in Utica and bike racks at several locations in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.

These projects might be worthwhile, but they should be paid for by the local interests who can best judge their worth.

In his 1932 book, Congress as Santa Claus, constitutional scholar Charles Warren offered a prescient warning on the dangers of federal subsidization of state and local affairs:

The continuance of this practice of shifting to the National Government responsibility for payment for matters which formerly were dealt with by individual initiative, by community cooperation, by voluntary organizations, or by local or State governments – the continuance of this practice of making drafts on the National Treasury to carry out purposes not within the enumerated or implied powers of the National Government will inevitably have two results.

So far as these Government donations consist of direct appropriations for private or local interests, they will deaden and finally destroy the eagerness or willingness of State Governments and local communities to pay for their own needs. So far as they take the shape of the so-called Federal Aid laws for local projects to be matched by local appropriations, they will have ‘a tendency to induce excessive expenditures by State and municipal governments, with top-heavy bond issues and oppressive local taxation.’

I doubt in Warren’s worst nightmares could he have envisioned the examples of DOT spending above, let alone the existence of a $90 billion federal Department of Transportation.

Timber Payments and Logrolling

Since 1908, the U.S. Forest Service has paid 25 percent of its gross receipts to the states for spending on roads and schools in the counties where national forests are located. In the Pacific Northwest, receipts started to decline in the late 1980s due to lower timber sales as a result of efforts to protect the spotted owl. In 1993, Congress responded with additional “spotted owl payments” to the affected states. A 2000 law spread these payments to all national forests, but the bulk continued to go to the Pacific Northwest.

When the law was reauthorized last year, members of Congress used it as an opportunity to grab money for their states. According to the Associated Press:

The federal largesse initially focused on a handful of Western states, with Oregon alone receiving nearly $2 billion. Spending of that magnitude, though, sparked a new timber war – this one among politicians eager to get their hands on some of the logging money. A four-year renewal of the law, passed last year, authorizes an additional $1.6 billion for the program through 2011 and shifts substantial sums to states where the spotted owl never flew. While money initially was based on historic logging levels, now any state with federal forests – even those with no history of logging – is eligible for millions in Forest Service dollars. Doling out all that taxpayer money is based less on logging losses than on the powerful reality of political clout.

Democratic New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman bluntly admitted that the money grab was a result of good ole congressional logrolling:

Of much more important note: New Mexico’s two senators served as chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate committee that rewrote the timber payments formula. New Mexico’s increase under the new formula was 692 percent… Bingaman defended the changes. ‘Frankly we had to broaden the program in order to get the support to go ahead and do a reauthorization, and that’s exactly what we did,’ he said in an interview.

And of course, the porkfest was bipartisan:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was an early backer of the law and provided political cover for Republicans to support it… Timber harvests in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest have been modest in recent decades – ranging from $7,600 to $77,000 annually – but Clay County, Ky., which includes part of the forest, received $338,510 this year from the timber program, a 341 percent increase.

A Cato essay on the U.S. Forest Service notes that a “reform step would be to revive federalism by eliminating federal forest subsidies to the states and turning portions of the national forests over to the states. Other activities could be privatized… Some experts have proposed full privatization of the national forests.”

Such reforms would help to address the chaotic nature of current forest management through the federal political process, as illustrated by the spotted owl saga.

Our Tax Dollars Are Being Used to Lobby for More Government Handouts

The First Amendment guarantees our freedom to petition the government, which is one of the reasons why the statists who wants to restrict or even ban lobbying hopefully will not succeed. But that does not mean all lobbying is created equal. If a bunch of small business owners get together to lobby against higher taxes, that is a noble endeavor. If the same group of people get together and lobby for special handouts, by contrast, they are being despicable. And if they get a bailout from the government and use that money to mooch for more handouts, they deserve a reserved seat in a very hot place.

This is not just a hypothetical exercise. The Hill reports on the combined $20 million lobbying budget of some of the companies that stuck their snouts in the public trough:

Auto companies and eight of the country’s biggest banks that received tens of billions of dollars in federal bailout money spent more than $20 million on lobbying Washington lawmakers in the first half of this year. General Motors, Chrysler and GMAC, the finance arm of GM, cut back significantly on lobbying expenses in the period, spending about one-third less in total than they had in the first half of 2008. But the eight banks, the earliest recipients of billions of dollars from the federal government, continued to rely heavily on their Washington lobbying arms, spending more than $12.4 million in the first half of 2009. That is slightly more than they spent during the same period a year ago, according to a review of congressional records.

…big banks traditionally are among the most active Washington lobbying interests in the financial industry, and the recession has done little to dent their spending. …Since last fall, companies receiving government funds have argued that none of the taxpayer money they were receiving was being spent on lobbying.

…American International Group, the insurance firm crippled by trades in financial derivatives that received roughly $180 billion in bailout commitments, closed its Washington lobbying shop earlier this year. AIG continues to spend money on counsel to answer requests for information from the federal government, but the firm said it does not lobby on federal legislation.

The most absurd part of the story was the companies claiming that they did not use tax dollar for lobbying. I guess the corporate bureaucrats skipped the classes where their teachers explained that money is fungible.

The best part of the story was learning that AIG closed its lobbying operation, though that does not mean much since AIG basically now exists as a subsidiary of the federal government. The most important message (which is absent from the story, of course) is that the real problem is that government is too big and that it intervenes in private markets. Companies would not need to lobby if government left them alone and/or did not offer them special favors. Indeed, that was the key point of my video entitled, “Want Less Corruption: Shrink the Size of Government.”