Commentary

Big Government Swallows Its Opponents

Why does Big Government continue to persist three administrations after Reagan and almost a decade after the Republican revolution of 1994? It must be those big-spending Democrats and their greedy constituency groups, right? Think again. Big government is corrupting the judgment of conservative Republicans too. Consider the case of Arkansas Senator Tim Hutchinson and the Labor Department’s Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP).

In April, Senator Hutchinson and five of his colleagues — Tom Harkin (D-IA), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Arlen Specter (R-PA), and James Jeffords (I-VT) — wrote to the Labor Department about the possibility that it may open the SCSEP to competitive bidding.

They asked for “assurances that competition requirements will maintain continuity and stability at the national level by ensuring that successful grantees continue to receive funding.” In other words: open the SCSEP to competitive bidding, but don’t cut off current grantees.

The SCSEP is a legacy of the free-spending Great Society years. Established in 1965, the program is reauthorized annually under Title V of the Older Americans Act. Its stated purpose is “to provide useful community services and to foster individual economic self-sufficiency through training and job placement in unsubsidized jobs.” In short, the SCSEP does two things: it provides job placement and funds part-time community service jobs at public libraries, parks, and other public facilities.

Every year, the Labor Department hands out about $440 million in SCSEP grants to 10 national sponsors. Some sponsors carry out actual programs, while others act as middlemen doling out DOL money to sub-grantees. But both categories of grantees present unique problems.

Green Thumb, Inc., which recently changed its name to Experience Works, is the SCSEP’s biggest grant recipient at over $100 million a year. It began in 1965 with a pilot program under the SCSEP’s community service category of “community betterment or beautification” — planting trees along highways. Today, Experience Works also operates Meals on Wheels programs and places seniors in libraries, blood banks, senior centers, and other public service facilities. Recently, it has begun to provide job training in information technology skills.

Job placement and training for seniors are fairly laudable objectives. But when a government program is involved, it is important to ask a few important questions. First, are the program’s goals being met? And second, is there a better way to deliver these services? When we consider these questions, it is apparent that the SCSEP is in need of reform.

First, the government needs an independent assessment of whether program goals are being met. Currently, grantees measure their own success in meeting program goals. With millions of government grant dollars at stake, recipients have a built-in incentive to issue consistently positive reports. This is especially the case with organizations like Green Thumb/Experience Works, whose very existence depends on government funding. According to its tax forms from 1996 through 1999, government grants consistently account for over 90 percent of its funding.

Second, much of the SCSEP’s functions could be better performed by the private sector. Volunteers and private charities already contribute to the program’s social service functions at facilities like public libraries and parks. And matching seniors with prospective employers shouldn’t have to require millions of federal dollars.

For years, the SCSEP has been handled as a de facto entitlement for the same 10 grantees. Now rumors say it may be opened to competitive bidding. This is the least the federal government could do to protect taxpayer interests. After all, a well-run competition should assure that taxpayers get the most for their money. Grantees would have to come up with new ideas and hold down program costs to beat out others who are trying to obtain the same pot of money.

Ideally Congress should scrap the SCSEP in favor of private initiatives. In the real world, taxpayers might at least expect that grants would be awarded on a competitive basis. But that’s too much for the groups that run this program and their supporters on Capitol Hill. Within days of hearing that the SCSEP may open to competition, six senators wrote the Labor Department asking it to keep current grantees on the federal dole.

The names of most of the senators wouldn’t surprise you. Liberal Democrats Harkin, Kennedy, and Mikulski never saw a Great Society program they wouldn’t protect from budget cuts or competition. Republican Arlen Specter also has a soft spot for spending other people’s money.

But joining them is Tim Hutchinson, and that is surprising. Hutchinson says he’s a conservative and in fact, unlike Specter, seems to be one. What’s he doing defending a remnant of the Great Society? And if we can’t even open up a small grant program to competition, how are conservatives ever going to improve federal programs or reduce their size?

John Samples is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government. Ivan Osorio is the editor of Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch.