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Posts Tagged ‘Pork-Barrel Spending’

I wrote a few days ago that advocates of smaller government have won a very significant victory over the past five years, as measured by the fact that there’s been zero growth in overall federal spending.

And because the private economy has grown while the federal budget has been flat, this means that the burden of government spending – measured as a share of GDP – has declined.

This doesn’t mean our fiscal problems are solved. Indeed, the long-run numbers are still horrible and we desperately need genuine entitlement reform to avoid becoming a failed European-style welfare state.

But a long journey begins with a first step and the spending freeze over the past five years is worth celebrating.

And let’s also celebrate the fact that members of Congress no longer have carte blanche, generally using “appropriations” legislation, to specifically allocate spending for campaign contributors and other favored constituencies. Such spending allocations, known as “earmarks,” have been banned ever since the GOP took the House in 2010.

That makes me happy. As I wrote after that election, earmarks facilitate bad policy.

…earmarks are the proverbial apple in the congressional Garden of Eden. Members who otherwise might want to defend taxpayers are lured into becoming part of the problem. …earmarks [are] a “gateway drug” that “seduces members into treating the federal budget as a good thing that can be milked for home-state/district projects.” …they finance a racket featuring big payoffs to special interests, who give big fees to lobbyists (often former staffers and Members), who give big contributions to  politicians. Everyone wins…except taxpayers.

You’ll notice, though, that I didn’t really offer any supporting evidence four years ago.

So it’s time to rectify that oversight. The easy evidence to cite is that the federal budget hasn’t grown over the past five years, but there are several reasons for that spending freeze.

While I think the earmark ban deserves some of the credit, let me share a couple of anecdotes that also show why it was good to end this odious version of pork-barrel spending.

Here are some excerpts from a Northern Virginia news report about the looming retirement of a member of the Appropriations Committee.

U.S. Rep. Jim Moran departs Congress unrepentant on the need for those much-maligned targeted budget items known as earmarks. Moran – who once famously, if jokingly, promised to “earmark the shit out of” the federal budget if Democrats regained control in Congress – told the annual meeting of the Inter-Service Club Council of Arlington that the spending measures that used to be inserted at the behest of individual members of Congress should be brought back.

You may be wondering why this is newsworthy. After all, it’s hardly a shock that a big spender likes earmarks.

But it’s this next excerpt that makes the key point.

Why is he leaving? At the luncheon, Moran expanded on earlier frustrations. “Congress as an institution is dysfunctional,” he said. “Life’s too short to be part of an institution that only produces frustration.” Things were different when Moran first was elected to Congress in the early 1990s.

In other words, Cong. Moran got frustrated and decided to quit (at least in part) because he no longer had the ability to play favors and raise campaign cash by doling out earmarks.

Gee, it’s almost enough to make you cry with sympathy. I’m sure taxpayers are very sad that Congressman Moran won’t be prowling the halls of Congress any longer.

And it’s a double tragedy because he won’t have as much value as a lobbyist since he can’t finagle earmarks from his former colleagues. Oh, the humanity!

And keep your hankie ready, because our next story also is a tear-jerker. It’s from before the election and it’s about outgoing Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and his refusal to share his stash of campaign cash with fellow Democrats.

Despite direct appeals from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other top Democrats, Harkin has refused to transfer money from his $2.4 million campaign account to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to sources and campaign finance records.

So why did Harkin decide to hoard his campaign cash, even though he was retiring from politics?

Because the poor fellow wasn’t allowed to subsidize his own ego with a taxpayer-funded earmark and had to use money from his contributors instead.

…the retiring Iowa senator has informed party leaders that he plans to use the campaign funds for a charitable contribution to an entity that bears his name: The Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement at Drake University in Des Moines, according to sources close to discussions with the senator. …the ban on congressional earmarks…has prevented him — a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee — from steering money to Drake University, said Democratic sources. Finding a home for his official papers has been a priority for Harkin, who has served in the Senate for three decades after 10 years in the House.

Gosh, no wonder Harry Reid wants to bring back earmarks. If politicians can steal from taxpayers, they’ll have more money available to win elections!

Which is another reason why the earmark ban should be preserved.

P.S. Want another argument against earmarks? Well, how about the fact that reporters at the Washington Post think President Obama would have been able to push through more gun control if he could have used earmarks as bribes.

P.P.S. I want to switch topics and close by giving readers a riddle.

What would happen if you scrambled the genes of George W. Bush and David Cameron (the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) and produced two new people, sort of like Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins?

The answer is that you’d get Calvin Coolidge and Richard Nixon.

Allow me to elaborate. I’ve previously pointed out that George W. Bush was a reckless big spender, but at least he was somewhat consistent in advocating lower taxes.

David Cameron is the opposite. I’ve groused about his disturbing affinity for tax hikes, but he’s been much better on spending than I thought he would be.

And he’s about to get even better according to Allister Heath of the U.K.-based Telegraph.

…this government is a free marketeer’s dream. It believes in cutting spending as a share of GDP much more severely than any previous government had dreamed of. On that metric, it is more Thatcherite than Thatcher, more Reaganite than Reagan. Public spending is expected to fall to 35.2pc of GDP by 2019-20, the lowest level in at least 80 years. …When looking just at the Government’s consumption of goods and services, the state’s relative size will fall to levels last seen in 1938, according to a historical Bank of England dataset. …the aspiration is revolutionary.

Considering that government spending in the United Kingdom was consuming more than 48 percent of GDP as recently as 2009, it truly would be a dream if the burden of the public sector dropped to “only” 35 percent of economic output.

That surely would earn the U.K. a spot on my list of nations that have complied with Mitchell’s Golden Rule for multi-year periods.

Returning to my riddle, Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger supposedly had the same genetic stock in Twins, but one of them somehow got the bad genes and the other one got the good genes.

So I’m speculating that the genes of Bush and Cameron, scrambled together, would produce one good politician who believes in lower spending and lower tax (i.e., Coolidge) and one bad politician who supports higher taxes and bigger government (i.e., Nixon).

P.P.P.S. Here are my most recent numbers showing which modern Presidents were the most frugal and most profligate.

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It’s unfortunate that Senator Tom Coburn is retiring. He hasn’t been perfect, but nobody can question is commitment to limited government. He’s been a rare voice in Washington against wasteful spending.

And he’s going out with a bang, having just released the 2014 edition of the Wastebook.

It’s a grisly collection of boondoggles and pork-barrel spending, highlights (though lowlights might be a better term) of which can be seen in this video.

The good news is that the American people increasingly recognize that Washington is a cesspool of waste, fraud, and abuse.

A Gallup Poll from last month, for instance, finds that folks are quite aware that a huge chunk of the federal budget is squandered.

There are two interesting takeaways from this polling data.

First, it’s good to see that there’s been a steady increase in the perception of waste in Washington. That shows people are paying more attention over time. In other words, more and more Americans recognize that the public sector is a sleazy racket for the benefit of bureaucrats, lobbyists, contractors, politicians, cronies, interest groups, and other insiders.

Second, it’s also worth noting that there’s less waste at the state level and even less waste at the local level. These are just perceptions, to be sure, but I suspect people are right. Money is less likely to be squandered when people have a greater opportunity to see how it’s being spent. Which is why federalism is good policy and good politics.

Now let me add my two cents. Government waste doesn’t just occur when money goes to silly projects. From an economic perspective, money is wasted whenever there is a misallocation of potentially productive resources.

And that’s a pretty accurate description of most of the federal budget. Not just discretionary programs, but also entitlement programs.

Here’s my video providing the theoretical arguments against excessive government spending.

And here’s the companion video that reviews the evidence showing that big government undermines prosperity.

And if you want another video, but one that shows horrific government waste presented in an amusing manner, click here.

And if you instead want to get heartburn by reading about disgusting examples of waste, click here, here, or here.

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Remember the Spending Quiz from 2010, which asked people to guess whether absurd examples of government waste were true or false?

Well, we have a new video on government waste, though bureaucrats and politicians have become so profligate it doesn’t even bother to trick people with fake examples.

While very well done, I do have two small complaints about the video.

First, it asks whether we should cut spending or raise taxes to deal with the national debt. I think that’s too narrow. We shouldn’t be wasting money even if the budget was balanced and there wasn’t a penny of debt.

In other words, the problem isn’t deficits. Red ink is just a symptom. The real problem is that government is too big.

Second, the video sort of acquiesces to the dishonest Washington terminology by asking whether we should cut spending or raise taxes, implying those are the only two options. I favor genuine spending cuts, of course, but the most accurate way of phrasing the question is to ask whether we should cut spending, restrain spending, or let government grow on auto-pilot.

As I explained earlier this year, we can balance the budget in just 10 years if spending grows “only” 3.4 percent per year. When people understand that detail, there’s almost no support for higher taxes.

But I’m nitpicking. Overall, a very good video.

P.S. If the examples of pork-barrel spending in the video get you angry, you’ll probably have a stroke if you also watch the waste video from the folks at Government Gone Wild.

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Taxpayers all across America send lots of money to Washington, DC, in part because we’re supposed to believe that redistribution is a legitimate and desirable function of the federal government.

But this is a very perverse form of redistribution. All that money going to Washington helps subsidize a network of overpaid bureaucrats, fat-cat lobbyists, corrupt politicians, and well-heeled interest groups.

Indeed, as shown in this map, 10 of the 15 richest counties in the country are in the Washington metropolitan area.

One of those wealthy areas is Arlington County, VA, just across the river from Washington. Home to thousands of federal bureaucrats and other DC insiders, Arlington is similar to Washington in that there is a lot of wasteful spending. Sort of makes you wonder if local bureaucrats and federal bureaucrats ever meet at bars after work and brag about who wasted the most money that day?

Anyhow, here are some sordid details from a Washington Post story.

A wall made of etched glass opens the rear vista to newly planted landscaping. Embedded in the floor are heating elements intended to ward off the cold weather and keep winter-weary feet cozy. …And the price tag: $1 million. “Is this made of gold?” asked commuter Yohannes Kaleab, examining the concrete-and-stainless-steel bench that is part of the new, seven-figure bus shelter. “What?” asked Robin Stewart as he learned of the cost of the structure while waiting for a bus there last week. “That’s ridiculous. From a citizen, from a voter, whoever put that budget through needs to get their butt canned. It’s an outrage.” The “super stop,” which opened March 11, is the first of 24 new bus stops that will also accommodate Arlington’s long-planned streetcars. …It will shelter 15 people at a time.

Boondoggle Bus Stop

$1 million for this bit of glass, metal, and concrete?!?

That sounds kind of expensive, but we can be comforted by the fact that thoughtful public servants predict future savings.

“When you do a prototype, you end up heavily front-loading on the costs,” said Dennis Leach, Arlington’s transportation director.

So how much will taxpayers save on the remaining 23 stops? Well, the good news is that they won’t cost $1 million each. The bad news is that the government doesn’t exactly save a lot of money when doing bulk purchases.

“Our goal if at all possible is to do it for less,” Leach said. The county has budgeted $20.8 million for the remaining 23 stops, or about $904,000 for each one.

Gee, knock me over with a feather. The additional bus stops will “only” be $904,000!

That’s not counting cost overruns, which are an inevitable reality with government budgeting, so I think it’s safe to assume that the final cost will be far higher.

So why do governments waste money like this?

Part of the answer, of course, is that politicians are inherently wasteful. But there’s another factor at play. Politicians are especially wasteful when they can spend money that isn’t collected from their own taxpayers.

And readers from other parts of America doubtlessly will be overjoyed to learn that their paying for a big chunk of this boondoggle.

Federal and state transportation money paid 80 percent of the costs.

With taxpayers outside of Arlington paying such a high share of the cost, we should think of ourselves as lucky that the bus stop didn’t cost $10 million!

But here’s the most amazing part of the story.

What’s the most important part of a bus stop? In theory, a bus stop can be nothing more than a sign indicating the spot where you should wait for a bus.

But if you’re going to build a structure, the most valuable feature – at least from the perspective of riders – is that you will be protected from the weather. So what sort of protection are riders getting as a result of this $1 million boondoggle? Meh, not so much.

…the bus shelter is “pretty, but I was struck by the fact that if it’s pouring rain, I’m going to get wet, and if it’s cold, the wind is going to be blowing on me. It doesn’t seem to be a shelter. It doesn’t really shelter you very much . . . you can get pretty soaked in two minutes.” Her opinion was shared by some on Columbia Pike trying it out.

Gee, isn’t this wonderful. Some contractors doubtlessly lined their pockets building this white elephant. Some consultants doubtlessly fattened their bank accounts with all the nonsense that is now part of the “planning” process.

But taxpayers, as usual, got the short end of the stick. They got taken for a ride, figuratively. And if they actually use the bus stop, they can get taken for a ride, literally, so long as they don’t mind getting wet.

P.S. And let’s not forget that Obama wants some more class-warfare tax hikes to finance more of this “investment.”

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I agree with George Will that it’s okay to reduce Pentagon spending. After all, the United States accounts for almost one-half of the world’s military outlays, about twice as much as the combined total of possible enemies.

But I also agree that national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, so I want to make sure we get the most bang for the buck (no pun intended) from every penny.

That’s why I get especially irritated when I read horror stories about Pentagon waste.

But in many cases, it’s not the fault of the Generals and Admirals. America’s military is forced to waste money because the politicians in Washington are motivated by cronyism, corruption, pork, and political correctness.

For example, let’s look at an excerpt from a column in the Washington Examiner.

Imagine you’re a legislator in a country with a bloated budget of almost $4 trillion and a record level of spending that requires massive deficits and could mean job-killing tax increases. Now imagine you’ve got a weapons program that is billions over budget, a decade behind schedule and unwanted even by those for whom it is intended. What would you do? If you said, “Earmark the program another $380 million,” you’re apparently qualified to serve on the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. The weapons program is the Medium Extended Air Defense System, a joint venture with Germany and Italy that was zeroed out by three of four relevant congressional funding authorities. But the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense decided the program was worth a $380 million earmark, and the full committee passed the final bill along with a unanimous vote.

I’m not an expert on weapons systems. Heck, I know less about such matters than Obama’s cabinet knows about the economy. But it certainly seems foolish to throw good money after bad on a program that doesn’t work. Especially when the military doesn’t want it!

And here are a couple of sentences from a Forbes column about part of the military budget being diverted to subsidize solar power.

EPA regional headquarters?

The U.S. Army is looking for a few good renewable energy projects. Some $7 billion worth. On Tuesday the Army began accepting bids for green energy installations that will be deployed on military bases and facilities across the U.S. The Army will sign contracts to buy the electricity generated by solar, wind, geothermal and biomass projects for up to 30 years. …The program is part of a Department of Defense initiative to meet at least 25% of energy demand on its bases from renewable sources by 2025. The military is also aiming its bases to become “net zero” consumers of electricity – generating more power than they use by installing solar and other renewable energy systems.

Silly me. I thought the Pentagon was responsible for keeping the nation safe. I guess I missed the memo where it was tasked with being a tool for the green agenda.

These examples doubtlessly are just the tip of the iceberg. Politicians can’t resist turning anything they touch into a vehicle for graft, waste, and foolishness.

To be sure, there are also big picture issues of national security that have to be resolved. Is NATO now an anachronism, as Steve Chapman persuasively argues? Is overseas intervention a pointless exercise, as Mark Steyn explains?

But whatever the mission, the Pentagon’s ability to carry it out is compromised when politicians treat the military budget like a goodie bag.

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Every time some class-warfare Democrat or Charlie Brown Republican says we need higher taxes, I think of all the ways the government wastes money and I get angry because the political elite is ripping off the American people.

Should we send more money to Washington when the federal government is:

And those are just examples of nickel-and-dime programs. The bigger outrage is that politicians have created costly, inefficient, and bankrupt entitlement programs that threaten our fiscal future.

But the small examples have symbolic value, and now I have something new to add to the list. The idiots at the State Department thought it was just fine and dandy to pay 35 times the market price for some Kindles.

“Hey, let’s stimulate the economy by paying 35 times the retail price!”

IPads are too fancy, Nooks aren’t fancy enough, but Kindles are just right for teaching English, the State Department thinks, which is why it bought 2,500 of them from Amazon in a $16.5 million no-bid contract, NextGov’s Dawn Lim reports. That works out to $6,600 per Kindle Touch — a lot more than the $189 retail price. The plan, according to Kim, is to send the e-readers to “designated libraries and U.S.-friendly educational centers around the world.”

Since your paying for this ripoff, you might be a tad bit irritated. But that’s only because you’re an unsophisticated taxpayer. According to PR hacks, we really are getting a good deal because of all the extras in the agreement. Put down your coffee or soda before reading this passage from the report because I don’t want to be responsible for liquid on your computer screen.

Amazon is responsible for shipping the Kindles, providing 24-7 customer service, sharing data on how the Kindles are used to access content and pushing serialized content to the Kindles regularly. Amazon is also responsible for disabling “standard features, as as [sic.] requested by DoS, for the device such as individual purchasing ability.”

Wow, free shipping. That’s worth a lot. And the customer service surely adds a couple of bucks per unit, not to mention the extra pennies it must cost to disable features and provide electronic updates.

But let’s not be too hard on clueless bureaucrats. Maybe they just don’t understand high tech. After all, moronic government officials paid more than $22,000 each for big institutional Internet routers hooked up to just a handful of computers.

It’s almost enough to make you think government spending is the problem rather than the solution.

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I sometimes get accused of being too libertarian. One leftist blogger even said my views are insane.

So I decided to show my open-mindedness by finding a way to praise big government. It took a bit of head scratching, but I think I discovered something that is impressive, sort of.

As you can see in this chart prepared by the Republican Study Committee, the federal government is remarkably effective at wasting money with duplication and featherbedding.

But I don’t want to be chintzy in my praise of the federal government. If you look at the areas where there is the most duplication and waste, you’ll find programs for energy, housing, and education – all of which are areas where the Constitution does not authorize spending and intervention by the federal government. So let’s also praise the politicians in Washington for their agility in sidestepping the system set up by the Founding Fathers!

And let’s not be shy about crediting the political elite for shoulder-to-the-grindstone diligence. It takes a certain dedication – or something like that – to continue to pour money into these programs when all the evidence suggests federal involvement in education has undermined outcomes, that federal housing programs helped cause the financial crisis, and that federal energy programs have become cesspools for cronyism.

I know I’m guilty of sometime posting absurd examples of government stupidity. I hope today’s post shows that I’m capable of looking at the positive side of government.

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