The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold has identified another budget zombie. This time it’s an obscure grant program administered by the Federal Aviation Administration that dumps money on tiny airports with scant activity.
From the article:
Along a country road in southern Oklahoma, there is a place that doesn’t make sense. It is an airport without passengers.
Or, for that matter, planes.
This is Lake Murray State Park Airport, one of the least busy of the nation’s 3,300-plus public airfields. In an entire week here, there might be one landing and one takeoff — often so pilots can use the bathroom. Or none at all. Visiting pilots are warned to watch out for deer on the runway.
So why is it still open? Mostly, because the U.S. government insists on sending it money.
Every year, Oklahoma is allotted $150,000 in federal funding because of this place, the result of a grant program established 13 years ago, in Congress’s golden age of pork. The same amount goes to hundreds of other tiny airfields across the country — including more than 80 like this one, with no paying customers and no planes based at the field.
And why does the federal government insist on sending Lake Murray — and other seldom used airports — money?
In the years since 2000, pork has gone far out of fashion in American politics. But this program has remained strikingly difficult for anyone — from Washington to Oklahoma City — to kill.
President George W. Bush, more than once, proposed budget cuts that would have ended the program. In 2011, Coburn suggested making states share more of the costs. Instead, last February, Congress kept the program in place when it reauthorized the FAA.
Budget watchdog groups say these airport entitlements are in a league with the Essential Air Service program — which subsidizes commercial flights to small places — and Amtrak. Their services are spread wide enough to give them a strong base in Congress.
One constantly hears the cries that the federal government (i.e., taxpayers) isn’t “investing” enough money on “our crumbling infrastructure.” Yet this is precisely what happens when you put politicians in charge of allocating resources: decisions are largely made on the basis of political and parochial concerns rather than sound economic and financial considerations.
(See this Cato essay for more on federal involvement in airports and air traffic control.)
Addendum: Fahrenthold notes that former House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bud Shuster (R‑PA) engineered the “carpet‐bombing” of money from this program to congressional districts far and wide. His son, Bill Shuster, now heads the same committee and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. So don’t expect this zombie to finally be put down anytime soon.
In December 2010, I wrote that “An indicator of the incoming House Republican majority’s seriousness about cutting spending will be which members the party selects to head the various committees.” The final roster ended up leaving a lot to be desired from a limited government perspective. For example, the House Republican leadership and its allies went with Rep. Hal Rogers (R‑KY), aka “The Prince of Pork,” to head up the Appropriations Committee.
Two years later, the committee situation is about to get even worse now that the House Republican leadership has decided to send a message that casting a vote according to one’s beliefs instead of one’s instructions is a punishable offense. On Monday, four congressmen were booted from “plum” committee assignments for failing to sufficiently toe the leadership line. I suspect that the purge was motivated, at least in part, by Team Boehner’s desire to have the rest of the rank and file think twice before casting a “no” vote on whatever lousy deal is struck with the White House to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”
Three of the purged Republicans are returning members of the 2010 freshmen “Tea Party Class”: Rep. David Schweikert (R‑AZ), Justin Amash (R‑MI), and Tim Huelskamp (R‑KS). Over the past year, I have been keeping a loose record of how the freshmen voted on opportunities to eliminate programs and prevent spending increases. On seven particularly telling votes*, Schweikert and Amash voted in favor of limited government every time. Out of 87 freshmen, only Schweikert, Amash, and five others had a perfect record. Huelskamp was six for seven. He also was one of only four Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee to vote against the bloated farm bill that passed out of the committee in July. The fourth outcast, Rep. Walter Jones (R‑NC), had become an irritant to the Republican establishment after turning against the Iraq War and associating himself with more libertarian Republicans like Rep. Ron Paul (R‑TX).
The best that can be said for Team Boehner thus far is that it isn’t Team Pelosi. A common excuse is that House Republicans have been constrained by Democratic control of the Senate and White House. While there is an element of truth to that claim, we’re talking about a House Republican majority that wouldn’t even vote to get rid of the loan guarantee program that led to the Solyndra debacle. The reality is that most Republicans were only ever interested in using Solyndra to score political points against the White House. Ditto pretty much every other White House spending endeavor that House Republicans claim to oppose.
*Votes were to terminate the Economic Development Administration, Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia, Essential Air Service program, Title 17 Energy Loan Guarantees, Community Block Development Grant program, against reauthorizing the Export‐Import Bank, and against the Continuing Appropriations Act in September.
After the Republicans took back control of the House following the November 2010 elections, the GOP leadership went with Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers — a.k.a. “The Prince of Pork” — to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee. I wrote at the time that “The support for Rogers from House Republican leaders is a slap in the face of voters who demanded change in Washington.”
I haven’t changed my mind.
A recent article in the New York Times offers up another reminder that the 30‐year House veteran’s priority is to funnel taxpayer money back to his district — not downsize the federal government:
In the 1980s, the military had its infamous $800 toilet seat. Today, it has a $17,000 drip pan. Thanks to a powerful Kentucky congressman who has steered tens of millions of federal dollars to his district, the Army has bought about $6.5 million worth of the “leakproof” drip pans in the last three years to catch transmission fluid on Black Hawk helicopters. And it might want more from the Kentucky company that makes the pans, even though a similar pan from another company costs a small fraction of the price: about $2,500…The Kentucky company, Phoenix Products, got the job to produce the pans after Representative Harold Rogers, a Republican who is now the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, added an earmark to a 2009 spending bill. While the earmark came before restrictions were placed on such provisions for for‐profit companies, its outlays have continued for the last three years.
According to the Times, Phoenix Products’ president and his wife have been “frequent contributors” to Rogers’s political committee and the company has spent at least $600k on a DC lobbying firm since 2005. Those efforts apparently haven’t gone unrewarded as Rogers “has directed more than $17 million in work orders for Phoenix Products since 2000.”
Readers should keep this story in mind the next time a Republican member of Congress calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment, complains about the growth in government under Obama, and then argues against “dangerous defense cuts.” The bedtime story that Americans often hear is that the federal government must spend gobs of money on defense in order to “keep us safe from our enemies.” I once believed that story — and then I spent some time in the U.S. Senate watching policymakers treat military spending like any other pot of taxpayer money.
[See here for more on downsizing the Department of Defense.]
We’re ten years past 9/11, and over the last decade we’ve shed a number of our liberties and spent wildly to counter a terrorist threat that, as the recent model airplane plot demonstrated, isn’t existential. The bureaucratic legacy of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security, has proven an unwieldy and pork‐laden nightmare. It’s time to abolish it.
My recent policy analysis, Abolish the Department of Homeland Security, makes the case for doing so. To begin with, DHS is a management disaster by its very nature:
In creating Homeland Security, Congress lumped together 22 previously unconnected federal agencies under a new Cabinet secretary. That’s a problem, not a solution. And while members of Congress routinely clamor for consolidating Homeland Security oversight in one committee, that seems unlikely: 108 congressional committees and subcommittees oversee the department’s operations. If aggregating disparate fields of government made any sense in the first place, we long ago would have consolidated all Cabinet responsibilities under one person — the secretary of government.
Apart from the structural handicaps that DHS faces, the whole notion of “homeland security” is problematic. The “odiously Teutono/Soviet” concept trends us ever closer to a police state and is particularly prone to pork‐barrel spending. As I said in my recent op‐ed on the topic:
It allows politicians to wrap pork in red, white and blue in a way not possible with defense spending. Not every town can host a military installation or build warships, but every town has a police force that can use counterterrorism funds to combat gangs or a fire department that needs recruits or a new fire station.
Congress must reform its grant programs and end this wasteful spending. While we’re at it, let’s end federal funding for fusion centers, local‐ and state‐organized intelligence cells that duplicate FBI efforts in counterterrorism and end up labeling nearly anyone who expresses political dissent as a potential terrorist, a point I made at this Capitol Hill Briefing. I’ll be speaking at another Capitol Hill Briefing with Jim Harper today on abolishing the Transportation Security Administration. More information available here.
House Republican leaders went with Rep. Hal Rogers (R‑KY) – a.k.a. “The Prince of Pork” – to chair the House Appropriations Committee. As I wrote last week, the prospect of Rogers chairing Appropriations is about as inspiring as re‐heated meatloaf when it comes to his potential for pushing serious spending reforms.
Republican leaders in the House chose to ignore the concerns of tea party activists and other proponents of limited government, who were more supportive of Rep. Jack Kingston’s (R‑GA) dark‐horse push for the chairmanship. Kingston’s plan to “change the culture” on Appropriations offered a lot of positive ideas suggesting that he was more in tune with the voters that gave Republicans the majority.
Politico reported that Kingston received “the cold shoulder” from the House leadership in his bid to chair appropriations. Instead, presumptive Speaker of the House John Boehner supported spending‐hawk Jeff Flake’s (R‑AZ) bid for a seat on the committee. That’s nice, but Flake himself appears to recognize that his appointment could amount to a token gesture if old bull spenders end up ruling the roost:
“If it’s just putting a few conservatives on the committee, and leaving the current structure pretty much in place, that’s not enough.”
Some congressional Republicans have defended Rogers’ chairmanship, saying that he’ll be fine if he sticks to what he says he’s going to do. A long‐time champion of earmarking, Rogers did agree to go along with a ban on the tawdry practice a few weeks ago, which was convenient timing.
Will the leopard change his spots?
The left‐wing Think Progress blog recently used a FOIA request to obtain a letter Rogers sent to the Department of Health and Human Services requesting ObamaCare money for a community service center in his district. No earmarks? No problem for Hal Rogers. He can just go the time‐honored route of policymakers heckling federal agencies for pork. Earmarks represent just one of many ways that parochial‐minded members steer benefits to their districts at the expense of taxpayers and the general public good.
According to Bloomberg, Kentucky’s Lexington Herald‐Leader called Rogers “the very model of an old‐fashioned pork‐barrel politician who builds an empire out of government spending.” Roger’s website contains numerous pictures of him attending local photo‐ops for projects he helped fund with federal taxpayers’ money. (I suppose one argument in his favor is that lifting all those ceremonial spades means he’s probably in good shape to handle the rigors of chairmanship.)
The support for Rogers from House Republican leaders is a slap in the face of voters who demanded change in Washington — change from the big‐spending ways of both Democrats and Republicans.
Sen. John Kerry (D, MA) made an, er, interesting rhetorical case yesterday (as reported on E2 Wire, The Hill’s Energy and Environment blog) that borrows heavily from the Bush playbook: your patriotism hinges on voting for his favored policy — in this case, a climate change bill. Not that the bill is really about climate change, of course. It’s about a list of goodies completely unrelated to the changing political winds:
What we are talking about is a jobs bill. It is not a climate bill. It is a jobs bill, and it is a clean air bill. It is a national security, energy independence bill,” he told reporters in the Capitol…
“And people are going to have to decide whether they are going to vote for America or against it,” he concluded.
A couple weeks ago Orson Swindle, an assistant secretary of commerce for economic development in the Reagan Administration, was kind enough to send me news articles from his days battling policymakers over porky Economic Development Administration projects. In a 1989 Insight article, Orson gave a nice summation of one of the problems with special interest spending:
The minute you fund a program you’ve just created a constituency group. Before long, they will be organized and have a staff here in Washington, which is paid from dues from the members who get their money from the federal government. And those go up and lobby to keep the money going. It’s a classic microcosm of what’s wrong with government.
The National Association of Development Organizations is a perfect example of what Orson was talking about.
NADO says it “is an advocate for federal programs and policies that promote regional strategies and solutions for addressing local community and economic development needs.” It got started in 1967 when federal subsidization of state and local government was taking off. It’s headquartered in Washington and its dues come from members getting money from the federal government. According to USASpending.gov, NADO itself has received almost $1 million in federal money over the past decade.
Economic Development Administration funding is obviously a core interest for NADO. On January 8th it applauded a pro-EDA funding letter sent by 20 senators to President Obama. NADO’s concluding remarks are illustrative of the incestuous relationship between the special interests and members of Congress:
NADO thanks those regional development organizations that contacted their Senators to urge them to sign the letter. Regional development organizations are encouraged to formally thank those Senators that showed their support for EDA.
Exactly what does NADO mean by formally thank? Regardless, “thanking” politicians for giving the gift of other people’s money is patently repulsive.