A Washington Post investigation identified dozens of examples of federal policymakers directing federal dollars to projects that benefited their property or an immediate family member. Members of Congress have been enriching themselves at taxpayer expense? In other news, the sun rose this morning.
According to the Post, “Under the ethics rules Congress has written for itself, this is both legal and undisclosed”:
By design, ethics rules governing Congress are intended to preserve the freedom of members to direct federal spending in their districts, a process known as earmarking. Such spending has long been cloaked in secrecy and only in recent years has been subjected to more transparency. Although Congress has imposed numerous conflict-of-interest rules on federal agencies and private businesses, the rules it has set for itself are far more permissive.
Lawmakers are required to certify that they do not have a financial stake in the actions they take. In the cases The Post examined, not one lawmaker mentioned that he or she owned property that was near the earmarked project or had a relative who was employed by the company or institution that received the earmark. The reason: Nothing in congressional rules requires them to do so, and the rules do not address proximity.
With the fox guarding the henhouse, the most one can hope to accomplish is to limit the carnage. Many pundits, politicians, and policy wonks argue that a permanent ban on earmarks would be an effective limit. Unfortunately, that’s just wishful thinking as earmarks are merely a symptom of the real problem: Congress can spend other peoples’ money on virtually anything it wants.
Take the example of Rep. Candace Miller (R-MI):
In Harrison Township, Mich., Rep. Candice S. Miller’s home is on the banks of the Clinton River, about 900 feet downstream of the Bridgeview Bridge. The Republican lawmaker said when she learned local officials were going to replace the aging bridge, she decided to make sure the new one had a bike lane.
“I told the road commission, ‘I am going to try to get an earmark for the bike path,’” Miller said, recalling that she said, “If we don’t put a bike path on there while you guys are reconstructing the bridge, it will never happen.”
A member of the House Transportation Committee, Miller in 2006 was able to secure a $486,000 earmark that helped add a 14-foot-wide bike lane to the new bridge. That lane is a critical link in the many miles of bike paths that Miller has championed over the years. When the bridge had its grand reopening in 2009, Miller walked over from her home.
“People earmark for all kinds of things,” she said. “I’m pretty proud of this; I think I did what my people wanted. Should I have told them, ‘We can never have this bike path complete because I happen to live by one section of it’? They would have thrown me out of office.”
Forget how the federal money made it to Harrison Township, Michigan. As I’ve discussed before, the more important concern is that the federal government is funding countless activities that are not properly its domain:
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.
As a taxpayer, it disgusts me that Rep. Miller steered federal dollars to a project in her district that she personally benefited from. But would I be any better off had the money for a bike path in Harrison Township, Michigan come from a grant awarded by the Department of Transportation?
If Harrison Township wanted a bike path, then it should have been paid for with taxes collected by the appropriate unit of local government. Better yet, a private group could have raised the funds. Either way, I don’t see how it’s possible to argue that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority to spend taxpayer money on such activities. Invoking the General Welfare Clause doesn’t pass the laugh test as the bike path obviously doesn’t benefit the rest of the country. The Commerce Clause? Please.
For more on why the federal government should stop subsidizing activities that are properly the domain of the state and local government, see this Cato essay on fiscal federalism.
For much of the nation’s history, policymakers recognized that the federal government’s powers were “few and defined,” as James Madison noted. Issues like education and community development were largely left to the states. Unfortunately, the separation of responsibilities between the federal government and states has been eroded to the point that federal funds now account for approximately a third of total state spending. A consequence is that federal aid to the states has fostered bigger government at all levels.
State policymakers are addicted to federal money. The appeal is obvious: they get to take credit for all the wonderful things they do with money that they didn’t have to tax out of their state's voters. Thus, it has been interesting to observe Republican governors who willfully fed at the federal trough now pontificate on the dangers of Washington’s spending addiction as potential or declared candidates for president.
Although he ultimately decided against running for president, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has carefully crafted a public image as a voice of reason when it comes to addressing the federal government’s budget problems. When he was flirting with a run for president, Daniels received fawning coverage from various observers for labeling the federal government’s debt the “new red menace.”
One problem with this image is the fact that Gov. Daniels has been a “just another politician” when it comes to grabbing federal dollars. Indeed, Daniels signed an executive order on his first day in office creating a state agency devoted to increasing Indiana’s take from the federal honey pot. As an official with the Indiana state Office of Management and Budget, I can attest that it was the Daniels administration’s policy to find ways to use federal dollars instead of state dollars where possible.
Last week, a local Indianapolis television channel ran an investigation of the state’s Office of Federal Grants and Procurement. Although the agency has cost Indiana taxpayers almost a half-million dollars, the investigation team couldn’t figure out what it has been doing with the money. State legislators that were interviewed didn’t know much about the agency even though they continue to fund it. I admit that I can’t remember dealing with it (other than to be completely disgusted by its existence).
Daniels declined to be interviewed for the story, and instead sent out his deputy chief of staff, Cris Johnston, to take the heat. Johnston’s best defense was that Indiana has improved its ranking when it comes to bringing in federal taxpayer dollars. I suppose that means Daniels’s red menace isn’t such a menace when the federal spigot’s flow is being directed toward his state’s coffers.
I’ll wrap this up by making a suggestion to the journalists out there covering the presidential candidates with a background in state government: did they eschew federal handouts or did they have their hands out? It’s an important question because the next president is going to be facing an epic fiscal mess and we really can’t afford another politician who talks the talk but didn’t walk the walk.
See this Cato essay for more on the importance of fiscal federalism and why the flow of federal funds to the states needs to be shut off.
Chris Edwards recently penned a piece that makes the case for cutting federal subsidies to state and local governments. In a related budget bulletin, he shows that there are now over 1,100 federal aid programs for state and local governments.
I’ve produced two charts that illustrate the extraordinary growth in federal subsidies to state and local government using the latest figures in the president’s 2012 budget proposal.
The first chart shows the inflation-adjusted increase in federal subsidies to states and local governments since 1941, separated into “health” and “non-health” categories:
The second chart shows the inflation-adjusted increase in total federal subsidies to state and local governments since 2000:
Like countless other individuals and interest groups, state and local government officials have become addicted to federal taxpayer money. This addiction has encouraged irresponsibility and profligacy at all levels of government. It has also prevented citizens from appreciating the true cost of the services they demand from state and local governments.
In the next couple of months, state and local officials will wail and gnash their teeth over proposals from Washington to cut back on the federal feeding tube. Journalists who are tempted to be overly-sympathetic to state and local officials should look at these charts and ask themselves why these folks never seem to be able to get their fiscal houses in order despite all the “free” money they’re getting from federal taxpayers.
See this Cato essay on the need to revive fiscal federalism.
If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend the Frontline report Are We Safer? Since September 11, 2001, the government has gone on a spending spree without any regard for fiscal federalism, dumping $31 billion into grant programs. The program is based on The Washington Posts’ Top Secret America article, “Monitoring America.” Watch it below:
Much of this spending has gone to local pork projects or allowed state and local governments to avoid the realities of budgeting – spend federal counterterrorism dollars on normal law enforcement requirements while spending the local tax base on unsustainable pensions for public employees. For a tally of this excess, check out the Price of Peril, an interactive map showing homeland security spending by state, courtesy of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
All of this spending isn’t without cost to our civil liberties. The recipients of the money have to show something, hence the rise of fusion centers across the nation and the scaremongering reports they produce. There simply aren’t enough terrorists to go around.
Two of the people featured in the Frontline report, Mike German of the ACLU (and former FBI agent) and Harvey Eisenberg, Chief, National Security Section, Office of United States Attorney, District of Maryland, squared off at a Cato Institute event in 2009. Check it out here. Pay special attention to Eisenberg’s remarks at 53:35, where he misstates the threshold for starting a domestic counterterrorism investigation under the Attorney General Guidelines.
Mike German corrects him -- the 2008 guidelines loosened the standard such that agents don’t even need a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to investigate someone. Eisenberg responds that he requires it for all of his investigations. That’s admirable, if true, but a bit unnerving that the policy change is news to him.
The Washington Post recently reported on the federal government’s cash-welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Despite the deep recession, the TANF welfare rolls haven’t seen a dramatic increase. Meanwhile, other federal anti-poverty programs have seen the sizable increases that are to be expected in a recession:
Nationwide, welfare cases grew by 11 percent from the start of the recession through March, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. In contrast, the number of families getting food stamps jumped by 50 percent and the number getting unemployment benefits more than doubled. Medicaid grew by more than 13 percent from late 2007 to late 2009, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
As I’ve noted before, TANF’s tighter work and eligibility requirements have made it a less desirable option for those seeking government assistance. Over the past decade, inflation-adjusted spending on all federal anti-poverty programs has increased by 89 percent. Only TANF saw a decrease in spending.
When TANF replaced the federal government’s open-ended entitlement in 1996, it allowed the states great leeway to set benefits. California, which offers more generous benefits than other states, has seen its TANF rolls increase by almost 25 percent since the recession started. In contrast, Michigan and Rhode Island, which have seen a respective 2 percent increase and 10 percent decrease in their welfare rolls, offer less generous TANF benefits.
The variation in TANF enrollment among the states points to the desirability of handing off all responsibility for anti-poverty programs to the states. The beauty of fiscal federalism is that it enables states to pursue policies that better reflect local preferences, while constraining governments because of interstate competition. Federal policymakers should get out of the anti-poverty business as the Constitution intended.
President Obama is proposing giving the states another $50 billion. However, this would amount to another bailout for state and local government employees and their unions. The president claims that more deficit spending is necessary to sustain the nascent economic recovery. But the only thing the money would sustain is the excessive wages and benefits government employees enjoy at the expense of the private sector.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average state and local government employee receives 45 percent more in total compensation per hour worked than the average private-sector employee. Perhaps we should cut generous government wages and benefits rather than putting the federal government further into debt?
Total compensation for state and local workers is more than $1.1 trillion a years. So loosely speaking we could simply cut compensation by less than five percent for state and local governments to save the $50 billion they are in need of.
Of more fundamental concern is the continued relegation of the states to being administrative outposts of the federal government. The employment of firefighters, teachers, and police officers is an issue for the states to be concerned with. However, so long as the federal government continues to overstep its constitutional bounds, the states will have little incentive to tackle issues like excessive employee compensation. State and local policymakers can avoid the hassle of taking on the government employee unions by cashing Uncle Sam’s checks instead.
As the following chart shows, federal aid to state and local governments has almost doubled in real terms over the past decade:
It’s not a coincidence that the states find themselves in a fiscal bind. The increasing dependency on the federal government has contributed to the states’ dereliction of duty when it comes to keeping their fiscal houses in order. As this essay argues, reviving fiscal federalism is critical to getting governments at all levels in the United States to clean up their fiscal messes.