Tag: tom coburn

Abolish Federal Job Training Programs

A report from the Government Accountability Office finds that the federal government administers 47 different employment and job training programs at a cost to taxpayers of about $18 billion. The GAO excluded another 51 programs that could be considered as providing job training assistance, such as student loan subsidies.

The takeaway from the report is that there is a lot of duplication, and thus excess bureaucracy and inefficiencies. Moreover, the GAO says that “little is known about the effectiveness of most programs.” Nonetheless, Congress unflinchingly funds these programs even though the GAO has been issuing reports with similar findings since the 1990s.

Coinciding with the GAO report, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a paper that singles out 25 particularly egregious examples of federal job training programs abusing taxpayer dollars. It’s the sort of thing that government apologists will dismiss as “anecdotal,” but when it comes to government programs, where there is smoke, there is usually fire. And if the anecdotes help undermine support for such unwarranted federal interventions, all the better.

One problem I have with Coburn’s paper is that it concludes with recommendations that amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic (e.g., consolidate programs, narrow program objectives, and better target funds). Coburn says that these programs need better “program metrics.” However, I was once responsible for program metrics as a budget official in the state of Indiana, and I can attest that politics render such endeavors a fool’s errand.

Coburn’s paper is at its best when he cites James Bovard’s observation that the government doesn’t need to be involved in job training:

As aptly considered by scholar James Bovard, the government has taken on a role more appropriately filled by the private sector. Bovard writes, “The fallacy underlying all job training programs is that the private sector lacks the incentive to train people for jobs. This is like assuming that farmers don‘t have an incentive to buy seed, or that auto manufacturers lack incentive to seek out parts suppliers. Businessmen naturally prefer that all the factors of production – including labor – be readily available. But where there is a shortage of skills and demands for services, there will be an incentive to train.”

The American Society for Training and Develop estimates that “U.S. organizations spent $125.9 billion on employee learning and development in 2009.” In addition, there are untold private options for job seekers: headhunters, counselors, recruiters, temporary work agencies, career fairs, internet resources, charities, and various civic organizations.

As Coburn correctly puts it:

The federal government could best help displaced workers by opening foreign markets to U.S. goods and services and creating an atmosphere that attracts and retains investment and productivity in the U.S. This can be accomplished in part by reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens on small businesses and employers, and ensuring stable and predictable government policies so employers can make short- and long-term investment and management decisions.

Getting Beyond the Anti-Earmark Crusade

As a former adviser to one of Congress’s most ardent foes of earmarking, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), I’ve served time on the front-lines of the battle to end the corruptive practice. Yet, I never felt quite comfortable about the mission. At the same time I was assisting the senator in his floor battles against the likes of ex-Sen. Ted Stevens (Porker-AK), some of my other colleagues had been instructed to help Oklahomans get “their fair share” of subsidies from various federal grant programs.

There just isn’t much difference between the activities funded via earmarking and the activities funded by standard bureaucratic processes. The means are different, but the ends are typically the same: federal taxpayers paying for parochial benefits that are properly the domain of state and local governments, or preferably, the private sector. As a federal taxpayer, I’m no better off if the U.S. Dept. of Transportation decides to fund a bridge in Alaska or if Alaska’s congressional delegation instructs the DOT to fund the bridge.

Therefore, earmarking is a symptom of the problem. The problem is the existence of programs that enable the federal government to spend money on parochial activities. I recently made this point in an op-ed on earmarking:

Critics of the Republicans’ earmark ban have a point when they argue that it won’t save a lot of money. While the tawdry and often questionable uses of earmarked money draw a lot of attention, it represents less than half of 1% of total federal spending.

Yes, earmarking greases the skids for bigger spending and more intrusive government. Policymakers are more willing to support a particular piece of legislation if it contains goodies for their district or state. But earmarked money almost always comes from federal programs that are themselves constitutionally and practically dubious.

In the wake of the earmarking ban by Republicans, much of the debate has centered on the propriety of Congress abdicating its “power of the purse” to the executive branch. This argument is largely irrelevant considering that Congress long ago delegated much of its decision-making power to the executive branch. The delegation was necessitated by the explosion in the size and scope of the federal government: there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for Congress to divvy up the gigantic sack of loot.

As an instructive article in the New York Times explains, eliminating earmarks won’t even stop policymakers from using their pull to steer federal funds toward parochial interests. Policymakers will just send letters to federal agencies (“lettermarking”) requesting targeted funding or call agencies (“phonemarking”) with their requests. Agency officials have an incentive to comply because policymakers determine their budgets.

Congressional Republicans have finally figured out that opposing earmarks is good politics, which explains the magic change in heart by earmarking kingpins like incoming House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). But if Republicans are really serious about reining in the size and scope of the federal government, they’ll go after the parochial programs that make earmarking possible. Therefore, tea party types and others concerned with runaway federal spending would be wise to hold Republicans accountable for the federal spending ends rather than the means.

Update: Per a helpful note from my colleague Roger Pilon, I should clarify that the debate over the power of the executive versus that of the legislative branch to spend is constitutionally relevant – and important. Roger does a much better job of making my point in the following blog post:

To be sure, there’s enough mischief at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to go around, but it’s the growth of spending, most on matters unauthorized by the Constitution, that is far and away the larger problem. McConnell calls for congressional oversight “to monitor how the money taxpayers send to the administration is actually spent.” Far more important will be hearings to determine whether Congress has constitutional authority to appropriate money on any particular matter in the first place.

Thus, the new Congress needs to see through the false alternative the earmarks debate has engendered. At bottom, it’s not a question of whether Congress or the president shall decide. Rather, after administration input, all but ministerial spending decisions belong to Congress — as constrained by the Constitution. Thus, if the voice of the electorate is to be respected, new and old members alike need to attend first to their oath of office.

A First Test for Republicans

Republicans’ hands have been strengthened by a wave of voter angst about big-spending and business-as-usual in Washington, D.C. But have they landed on their limited-government feet? The first test of that question comes next Tuesday.

That’s when Senate Republicans will likely vote on a proposal to bar themselves from requesting earmarks. Last year, House Republicans adopted that policy for themselves the day after House Democrats limited their earmarking to non-profits and government bodies.

The Senate Republican earmark ban is championed by Tea Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Its strongest opponent is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Senator McConnell may have won his race in 2008 thanks to bringing home the bacon, but politics seem to have changed since then. Earmarker extraordinaire Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) was bounced out of his office despite larding his district and state with federal pork.

McConnell’s own state may have changed, too. Witness the election of Rand Paul (without McConnell’s help). Paul supports the earmark ban.

McConnell has framed his opposition to the earmark ban as an argument for preserving Congress’ “discretion”—that is, its authority over the spending of federal dollars. Without earmarks, the administration will decide where the money is spent. But there’s a pretty long list of things McConnell could work for if he wants to defend Congress’ prerogatives, such as:

- Forcing the administration to be transparent about the grants it doles out.

- Limiting  or eliminating the administration’s grant-making and spending discretion.

- Withdrawing all the other massive delegations of authority that Congress has given to the executive branch.

- Reducing spending and cutting taxes so that spending discretion is where it should be: with the taxpayers who earned the money in the first place.

Earmarks are not a huge part of the federal budget, but that does not militate against ending them. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) calls them a “gateway drug to federal spending addiction,” which is a folksy way of talking about the political science of “log-rolling.” Former member of Congress Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.), who has seen it first-hand, talks in this clip about how House and Senate leaders use earmarks to buy votes on legislation they want to get passed.

If earmarks go away as a tool for wheeling-and-dealing in Congress, members and senators will be less likely to sell out the country as a whole with bloated spending bills and Rube-Goldberg regulatory projects for the benefit of some local interest or campaign contributor.

I’ll be speaking next Monday at a Hill event on earmark transparency. The vote in the Senate Republican Conference is Tuesday. It’s a secret ballot, so any senator who doesn’t trumpet his or her support of the earmark ban almost certainly opposes it and supports the practice of earmarking.

Conservative Rift Widening over Military Spending

More and more figures on the right – especially some darlings of the all-important tea party movement – are coming forward to utter a conservative heresy: that the Pentagon budget cow perhaps should not be so sacred after all.

Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky was the latest, declaring on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that military spending should not be exempt from the electorate’s clear
desire to reduce the massive federal deficit.

His comments follow similar musings by leading fiscal hawks Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a presumptive contender for the GOP nomination in 2012.  Others who agree that military spending shouldn’t get a free pass as we search for savings include Sen. Johnny Isakson, Sen. Bob Corker, Sen.-elect Pat Toomey—the list goes on.

Will tea partiers extend their limited government principles to foreign policyI certainly hope so, although I caution that any move to bring down Pentagon spending must include a change in our foreign policy that currently commits our military to far too many missions abroad.  To cut spending without reducing overseas commitments merely places additional strains on the men and women serving in our military, which is no one’s desired outcome.

If tea partiers need the specifics they have been criticized for lacking in their drive for fiscal discipline, they need look no further than the Cato Institute’s DownSizingGovernment.org project.  As of today, that web site includes recommendations for over a trillion dollars in targeted cuts to the Pentagon budget over ten years.

Meanwhile, the hawkish elements of the right have been at pains to declare military spending off-limits in any moves toward fiscal austerity.  That perspective is best epitomized in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation, Arthur Brooks of AEI and Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard published on Oct. 4—a month before the tea party fueled a GOP landslide.  (Ed Crane and I penned a letter responding to that piece.)  Thankfully, it looks like neoconservative attempts to forestall a debate over military spending have failed. That debate is already well along.

Halloween: Uncle Sam Style

The Office of Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has released an appropriately timed report on federal subsidies that have gone to the deceased. From the introduction:

In the past decade, Washington sent over $1 billion of your tax dollars to dead people. Washington paid for dead people’s prescriptions and wheelchairs, subsidized their farms, helped pay their rent, and even chipped in for their heating and air conditioning bills.

In some cases, these payments quietly gather in a dormant bank account. In many others, however, they land in the pockets of still-living people, who are defrauding the system by collecting benefits meant for a now-deceased relative.

Since 2000, the known cost of these payments to over 250,000 deceased individuals has topped $1 billion, according to a review of government audits and reports by the Government Accountability Office, inspectors general, and Congress itself. This is likely only a small picture of a much larger problem.

As a Cato essay on fraud and abuse in federal programs discusses, these problems are endemic because the federal government is a “vast money transfer machine.” While federal subsidy programs should be cut because they harm the economy and are unfair to taxpayers, Coburn’s findings of pure waste represent one more reason to pursue terminations of federal programs.

Co-opting the Anti-Spenders

Voters who recognize the need to make major cuts to federal spending and think returning Republicans to power will accomplish this feat could be in for a big disappointment. Recent comments to the Washington Post made by former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-MS) make it clear that anti-spending candidates elected in November will be fighting against their own party – not just the Democrats.

From the article:

Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), now a D.C. lobbyist, warned that a robust bloc of rabble-rousers spells further Senate dysfunction. “We don’t need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples,” Lott said in an interview. “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.”

Lott actually provided one of the more memorable moments in my career as a Senate staffer. The scene took place in the office of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) at a regular meeting of “conservative” Republican senators to discuss politics and policy. The setting was several months before the 2006 fall elections in which voters sent the Republican majority packing.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who I was working for at the time, was pleading with his colleagues to make a last ditch effort to cut spending. Coburn argued, correctly, that voters were fed up with Republican profligacy. In the midst of the discussion, Trent Lott entered. Strolling about the office while chomping on snacks, Lott dismissed Coburn’s suggestion in his good-ole-boy southern style.

Instead, Lott said the Republicans needed to tell voters that putting the Democrats in charge of post-911 America would leave the country vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In other words, Lott’s solution was to scare voters into keeping the Republicans in charge.

Lott might be gone, but the current GOP leadership seems to share the same aversion to actually reforming government. They will attempt to “co-opt” candidates who come to Washington on an anti-spending platform. (See my post on Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)).

In a recent Washington Times piece, John Ellis makes a compelling case for why 2010 is not going to be a replay of 1994:

Nobody can doubt that House Minority Leader John A. Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are good and loyal Republicans, but they lack everything that made Mr. Gingrich the author of success in 1994. Both are passive and timid and lack the drive and energy a real leader needs. Both are primarily managers rather than public voices of their caucuses. Neither can dominate a TV screen as Mr. Gingrich could, and neither is able to capture the public’s attention by focusing issues sharply and succinctly. Mr. Boehner is a wooden personality devoid of Mr. Gingrich’s charisma, and the slogan: “Boehner for Speaker,” which is beginning to appear, is hardly inspiring. Mr. McConnell is amiable but retiring, never arresting or incisive.

Indeed, the current Republican leadership bemoans the Obama administration’s reckless big spending and deficits. But other than complain and insist that the president should “pay for” additional spending, the GOP leadership has given no evidence that it recognizes – or even believes – that we actually need a smaller government.

Instead, the GOP has trotted out timid half-measures that they think will play well to the country’s anti-spending mood, but that would actually accomplish very little.

What Is a ‘Strong’ Defense?

The good people at the Stimson Center’s Budget Insight blog invited me to contribute a guest post discussing the Sustainable Defense Task Force report  Debt, Deficits, & Defense: A Way Forward. Here’s an excerpt:

The most common response [to the report] has been some sympathy for our argument that military spending should be subjected to the same scrutiny that should be applied to other government spending. There are still a fair number of people, however, who share our concern about the deficit, but who counter “But I want a strong defense.”

Who doesn’t?

The task force report was written with a single consideration in mind: in what ways, and where, could we make cuts in military spending that would not undermine U.S. security?

[…]

A leading conservative in the Senate, Tom Coburn (R-OK) wrote that the deficit reduction commission “affords us an opportunity to start some very late due diligence on national defense spending… [as well as] reduce wasteful, unnecessary, and duplicative defense spending that does nothing to make our nation safe.”

Read the rest here.