Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Role Reversal?

Remember when the Republicans would advocate smaller government and less federal spending?  

Freshmen members were typically the most vocal proponents of limited government, as they often brought optimism and a strong ideology to Capitol Hill.  After time, some of these GOP ideologues tended to succumb to the culture of Washington and lose their moorings. But this process usually took years.

Lately this phenomenon appears to be happening much more rapidly. Speaking about the recent explosion of pork-barrel spending, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) noted, “We’ve developed a culture, unfortunately, over a number of years where incoming freshmen are conditioned to believe that this is the only way to get reelected.”

Now, it seems even candidates for Congress are talking like inside-the-Beltway porkers.  In a hotly contested race for an open congressional seat in Illinois, a “fiscally conservative” Republican is pledging to bring home the bacon if elected. 

The Daily Herald said of Pete Roskam, “The 6th Congressional District GOP nominee said he’d support continuing the so-called practice of “earmarks” if elected to Congress to make sure projects like fixing the dangerous railroad crossing at Irving Park and Wood Dale roads continue to get funded.”

Meanwhile, Tammy Duckworth, the Democratic nominee for the Illinois congressional seat, has taken a strong anti-pork stance. She notes, “One of the easiest steps Congress can take to reduce the deficit and reform ethics is to immediately end the practice of earmarking.” Duckworth has even created an “Outrageous Earmark of the Week” section on her campaign website.

It sounds a lot like Congressman Flake’s “Egregious Earmark of the Week.” That is to say, she sounds a lot more like a fiscal conservative than the Republican candidate.

Native Illinoisan Ronald Reagan, who once vetoed a highway bill because it contained too many earmarks, must be spinning in his grave.

Welfare for Wineries?

In researching government budgets, I come across dubious spending projects all the time, but one recent example struck me as particularly idiotic and unjust.

The title of a recent press release from New York governor George Pataki says it all: “GOVERNOR ANNOUNCES $500,000 IN GRANTS AVAILABLE FOR NEW YORK WINERIES TO IMPROVE THEIR WEBSITES.”

So, New York is taxing the hard-earned wages of truck drivers and retail clerks and giving it to well-heeled winery owners and web services companies?

Come on Americans, wake up. Far too much of what our federal, state, and local governments do these days is just pure theft.

Exporters as Hostage-takers?

I subscribe to a useful digest of farm policy news called FarmPolicy. It’s a great little news service for those interested in agricultural issues.

Today in FarmPolicy, my attention and pique were raised by an article that included a statement from Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Co), who said that farming should be an integral part of national security. According to Salazar:

I would hate to think of a day where the United States of America becomes hostage to other countries (that export food to the U.S.), in a way that we are held hostage over our energy needs

I know of only two other countries that pursue a policy of total self-sufficiency in food(which seems to be what the senator is advocating): North Korea and Zimbabwe.

And we all know how well that’s going…

If you are interested in agricultural policy, Cato will be holding a forum next week to discuss the new Farm Bill. The forum will feature the secretary of agriculture, Mike Johanns, as well as Cal Dooley of the Food Products Association and Robert Thompson, one of America’s most respected experts on U.S. farm policy. Please join us.

Happy Birthday, Welfare Reform

Ten years ago today, Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law. As we look back on the results of those 10 years, it’s worth reflecting on just how wrong the critics were.

At the time the bill was signed, the welfare rights lobby warned that “wages will go down, families will fracture, millions of children will be made more miserable than ever.” One frequently cited study predicted that more than a million children would be thrown into poverty. 

Rep. Jim McDermott wasn’t satisfied with that prediction — he raised the estimate to 2.5 million starving children. Welfare advocates painted vivid pictures of families sleeping on grates in our cities, widespread starvation, and worse.

The New York Times claimed “the effect on our cities will be devastating.” Sen. Frank Lautenberg  (D-NJ) predicted “Hungry and homeless children” would be walking our streets “begging for money, begging for food, even…engaging in prostitution.”  The Nation warned bluntly, “people will die, businesses will close, infant mortality will soar.”

If one listened to the welfare lobbies, you would have expected to be stepping over bodies in the streets every time you left your house.

Now, with 10 years of experience, we can see that those claims were about as correct as claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Welfare rolls are down. Roughly 2.5 million families have left the program, a 57 percent decline. Undoubtedly, some of this was due to a growing economy, especially in the late 1990s, but welfare rolls remain down despite the post-9/11 economic slowdown.

At the same time, poverty rates today are below the rates before welfare reform was enacted. Child poverty rates declined from more than 20 percent in 1996 to 17.8 percent today. Roughly 1.6 million children were lifted out of poverty. Perhaps even more impressively, the poverty rate among black children has fallen at the fastest rate since figures have been recorded. 

Dependent single mothers, the group most heavily affected by welfare reform, account heavily for this decline. Since the enactment of welfare reform, the poverty rate for female-headed families with children has fallen from 46 to 28.4 percent. The decline in poverty among female-headed households has been greater than for any other demographic group.

Most of those who left welfare found work, and the vast majority of them work full-time.  It is true that most first jobs found by those leaving welfare are entry-level positions — on average, they earn about $16,000 per year. That’s not much, but for many it leaves them better off than they were before. Moreover, studies show that as these former welfare recipients increase their work experience, their earnings and benefits increase. And, for better or worse, many continue to receive other forms of government assistance.

Surveys of former welfare recipients indicate that they believe their quality of life has improved since leaving welfare. And they are optimistic about the future. A majority of former welfare recipients believe that their lives will be even better in one to five years. Many of the former recipients actually praise welfare reform as a stimulus for their beginning to look for work and as an opportunity for a fresh start, and a chance to make things better for themselves and their children. Both the women and their children appear to benefit psychologically from the dignity of working.

Certainly, I’ve had my own criticisms of welfare reform. It didn’t go far enough toward making people truly independent of government. It is too prescriptive, setting too many detailed rules for states to follow. The recent reauthorization of the reform added a worthless $1.7 billion program to encourage marriage. And, Congress has failed to build on welfare reform to restructure other federal anti-poverty programs.

Still, by almost any measure you can think of, it is clear that the critics of welfare reform were quite simply wrong.

That’s worth keeping in mind when those same Chicken Littles raise similar scare stories about the proposed reform of other government programs, from Medicare and Medicaid to Social Security. Once again, we are hearing that any changes, reductions, or “privatization” of these programs will lead to widespread poverty, suffering, and other disasters. For example, they claim that allowing younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes through personal accounts will leave seniors eating cat food. But given their track record, maybe we should be a little bit skeptical the next time they predict the sky is falling.

Spoke Too Soon

Last week in this space, I lamented a couple of the routine, tiny steps that carry us further down the path to bigger and more intrusive government.

By giving state food stamp programs greater access to personal information about Americans, Congress had masked the cost of rescuing Americans from Lebanon. The result was a bill that expanded the federal role in international rescue while spreading personal information about us a little further.

This weekend I discovered the rest of the story. In a separate bill, Congress made available yet more funds for rescuing Americans from Lebanon. Additional cost, 17 cents per U.S. family.

As Tom Palmer pointed out, Lebanon has been a dangerous place as a matter of common sense and announced U.S. policy for quite some time. I suspect that he, like I do, wants Americans to travel far and wide, experience the world, and make friends. But it’s not the federal government’s responsibility to subsidize that process by rescuing Americans when they encounter danger. Americans who need rescue should foot the bill.

Catching Terrorists with 1920s Technology

On August 18, the Washington Post ran a story on the post-9/11 technology investments at the FBI. The story concludes, “five years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and more than $600 million later, agents still rely largely on the paper reports and file cabinets used since federal agents began chasing gangsters in the 1920s.”

As part of the agency’s enormous Trilogy project, a proposed Virtual Case File system designed to help agents share terrorist threat information was scrapped after $170 million and four years of development.

The Post story details the management lapses and lack of oversight at both the FBI and contractor SAIC that led to the breakdown and waste of taxpayer dollars (probably why companies like SAIC get the moniker “Beltway bandits”).

A few of the all-too-common government failings relayed in the article:

  • The contractor, SAIC, burned through federal taxpayer money at a furious clip, with little effort to control costs.
  • The scope and cost of the project continued to grow once it was underway.
  • The FBI conducted little oversight of the project, and failed to provide clear direction to the contractor, despite the project’s obvious importance to national security.
  • The FBI-VCF management disaster is one of many I discuss in my book Downsizing the Federal Government (see here [pdf] for a shorter summary).

    The federal government simply cannot manage large, complex tasks with any degree of efficiency. The list of multi-billion dollar failures of technology, highway, and weapons projects grows longer all the time.