How Special-Interest Legislation Created a Government Behemoth

From farm subsidies to NEA grants, the federal budget is littered with needless programs.

Now that the government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis have passed, the federal government can get back to the work for which it was created: sending kids to Disney World.

The Columbus Fellowship Foundation does that annually, using tax dollars to reward contest-winning high schoolers such as the “Biodiesel Weasels” of Pinnacle Charter School in Federal Heights, Colo. (The Weasels came up with the idea of using biodiesel fuel to top off school-bus gasoline tanks.)

Congressional Republicans and the Obama White House have tried to kill the fellowship’s appropriation several times. Visitors to YouCut, a brainchild of Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, voted online to ax the program in 2010. But it lives on year after year, thanks to the efforts of a single senator, Mississippi’s Thad Cochran.

The federal budget is infested with such programs. Over the weekend, the Obama administration approved $1.6 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan. The Labor Department is planning to spend $2 million to improve labor-law compliance in the Republic of Georgia. The State Department is spending $450,000 to create green jobs in Morocco. (It will do this through “collaborative partnerships” — is there any other kind? — “innovation,” and other empty buzzwords.)

The National Endowment for the Arts is throwing away $20,000 on a study of how choral music affects the “attitudes/moods” of juvenile delinquents. The NEA also recently awarded $100,000 for a video game in which players help restore “the auras of Earth’s women” by taking “meaningful action” to improve “negative self-esteem, discrimination, eating disorders,” and so on.

Received wisdom tells us fault for the shutdown lies at the feet of tea party conservatives whose fanatic pursuit of spending cuts makes Islamist radicals look like avatars of ironic detachment. The truth is that they have not tried nearly hard enough. They went on a fool’s errand to repeal Obamacare — a goal even Karl Rove admitted they could never hope to reach. Meanwhile, they have left bushels of low-hanging fruit untouched.

Take direct payments — those farm-subsidy handouts that often go to residents in such agricultural breadbaskets as New York City and Los Angeles. (A federal study says more than 2,000 recipients of direct payments haven’t grown so much as a hangnail in more than five years.) Thanks to partisan wrangling, proposals to end direct payments — and replace them with slightly less egregious crop insurance subsidies — have come to naught.

Direct farm payments started in 1996 and were supposed to be temporary. But as Ronald Reagan once said, nothing lasts longer than a temporary government program.

That certainly seems to be true of the once-temporary Essential Air Service, which Congress established in 1978 to cushion the changes from airline deregulation. The program subsidizes flights to small towns such as Miles City, Mont. Passenger volume last year was roughly one person per flight. The passenger paid $142.50 for a round-trip flight to Billings, and the taxpayers paid $2,337 in subsidies. The EAS started out serving 37 airports in 16 states. It now serves 120 airports in 49 states.

Yet at least Congress got rid of earmarks, right? Yes, for now. But there is talk of bringing them back, on the grounds that they help enforce party unity. “If you can’t give people (in your caucus) anything,” said Rep. Steven LaTourette, then “you can’t take anything away from them.” Oh, for the glory days of 2008, when Congress showed the discipline of a Marine Corps color guard.

The immediate crisis has passed, but the long-term crisis continues. A little more than a decade ago the national debt was less than $6 trillion. It will soon top $17 trillion — equivalent to the entire U.S. GDP — and likely will reach $26 trillion less than a decade from now. Raising the debt ceiling made current problems better and made future problems worse.

In 1990, the entire federal budget reached $1 trillion for the first time. In 2009, the deficit alone reached $1 trillion. Interest on the debt is now the fifth-largest federal outlay (behind defense, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security). Erskine Bowles, of the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction-commission fame, says interest payments alone will top $1 trillion by 2020.

The problem is not insufficient taxes: Revenue as a share of GDP will soon reach levels not seen since WWII. But in the next several years spending as a share of GDP will race far ahead. And no, minuscule grants by the NEA and the State Department — however ridiculous — make no difference in the overall budget scheme. They are smaller than rounding errors.

Which is precisely the point. If Washington won’t even cut spending items so small they don’t make a difference, how will it ever cut the big-ticket spending that does?

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  • juris imprudent||

    Thank goodness that the adults are in charge, huh?

  • entropy||

    The National Endowment for the Arts is throwing away $20,000 on a study of how choral music affects the “attitudes/moods” of juvenile delinquents.

    The NEA hired Anthony Burgess?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uEJRmoIDVc

  • Square||

    "If Washington won’t even cut spending items so small they don’t make a difference, how will it ever cut the big-ticket spending that does?"

    When pundits keep focusing on spending items that are so small they don't make a difference, how will we ever turn our attention to ACTUAL problems?

    The NEA forces each American citizen to pay $0.0000007 for a study on using choral music to calm problem youth. The shocking tyranny.

    Meanwhile, the Pentagon spends hundreds of billions on weapons we know we don't need and will never use.

    But the important thing is to start with the small stuff. You know, just to show that we're serious.

  • entropy||

    Well, if you can't cut $0.0000007 without people screaming the world has ended and the childrenz will starve and the economy will implode, how are you going to cut hundreds of billions?

    If you can't eliminate 19 jerbz, how are you going to manage to get rid of 190,000 jerbz without cannibalism and anarchy reigning supreme?

  • Square||

    Because not every $0.0000007 is equal. Articles like this focus on programs like this precisely because they're so manifestly stupid that they get people riled up.

    They also divide people who don't agree that this is a significant problem and pointless and prolonged arguments then follow on issues that have no real bearing on anything.

    Meanwhile real spending, which far more people are opposed to and could unite against if not for this petty squabbling over purely symbolic issues, continues to spiral out of control.

  • ||

    Meanwhile real spending, which far more people are opposed to and could unite against if not for this petty squabbling over purely symbolic issues, continues to spiral out of control.

    Holy fuck.

    I mean, I'm not opposed to the occasional ray of sunshine penetrating our blanket of cynicism here, but... holy fuck.

    Pollyanna looks like H.L. Mencken against this level of derp.

    Social security, medicare, defense, and interest on the debt comprise 70% of the federal budget and are the major drivers of long-term spending and deficits. I'd love to see any polling done in the last 50 years that gave you any inkling that the public was willing to address those line items.

  • Square||

    Really? You're unaware of anyone else who's been critical of defense spending? Really?

    Social Security and Medicare each have dedicated funding streams. Yes those streams are inadequate, but cut those program and you have to cut those streams, too.

    Defense is the only major spending item that doesn't have an associated revenue stream. It's the only item worth talking about whose cuts represent 100% savings, and it's the only item that would meaningfully restrain federal spending.

    But you want alienate anyone who would want to have that discussion because you're so hot in the pants about NEA grants that don't cost you anything perceivable.

    But I'm the one who's being stupid?

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Social Security and Medicare each have dedicated funding streams. Yes those streams are inadequate, but cut those program and you have to cut those streams, too.

    Um, why? We already use them to redistribute wealth so the formula would just change a little. You do understand that if we actually zeroed out SS, Medicare, and Medicaid and zeroed out payroll taxes that we would have a nearly balanced budget, don't you? The deficit between payroll taxes and Medicare/Medicaid/SS spending is on the order of $700BB and growing.

    Revenues: http://www.heritage.org/federa.....ue-sources
    Entitlements: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GAO_Slide.png

    Defense does have an associated revenue stream. It's called federal taxes. As defense is explicitly called for in the Constitution it actually has a legitimate call on federal funds.

    Let's play a game. Let's zero out defense spending. That gives you basically a balanced budget now, perhaps a slight surplus if you don't count the fact that welfare and unemployment benefits reduce the savings. You do understand that the single largest item in the defense budget is personnel costs, don't you? Now keep it zeroed to eternity. We STILL run a deficit by the end of the next decade. What restraint in spending?!

    It's the fucking entitlements, stupid. (And yes cut defense spending too, but don't pretend that it's the Spending of Damocles hanging over our heads).

  • mplspolitics||

    Holy fuck, the prole literally just said:

    "All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

    We are fucked.

  • ||

    I was going to say that I recall being harangued as the biggest cunt in the universe the other day for suggesting that accumulating hundreds of billions of dollars worth of savings through every "innocuous" little pissant of a federal program. Good to see you're still at it. Your logic is impeccable.

  • ||

    *for suggesting that accumulating hundreds of billions of dollars worth of savings through every "innocuous" little pissant of a federal program would be a good start.

    Keyboard shortcuts before noon are a dangerous game.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Except the small stuff are things that should be easy to cut. Saying you shouldn't be peeing away tax dollars to send kids to Disney World, create green jobs in Morocco, or develop feminist video games are thing you would expect to be pretty universally agreed upon. There shouldn't be much in the way of political capital needed to pare them back. Defense budgets and entitlements are the difficult wins.

  • Square||

    The small stuff is political compromise stuff that got passed precisely because there is some significant enough group that was pacified by it.

    The small stuff is actually exactly the stuff that people get in the most viscous fights about, which distracts from real issues that might do us some good to address.

    If I am the head of a household and my wife buys a new car every week and stores it in a big field that we rent because she can't drive them all, and she also buys a lottery ticket every week because her greatest pleasure in life is scratching off the coating to see the prizes, am I going to avoid the subject of the new cars because I just can't get her to give up that lottery ticket?

  • Brian||

    The problem is not insufficient taxes: Revenue as a share of GDP will soon reach levels not seen since WWII. But in the next several years spending as a share of GDP will race far ahead.

    This is why balancing the budget with tax increases is a fool's errand: because whichever strategy you pick, realize you'll be doing it over and over again.

  • some guy||

    I'm sure someone is going to come in here to remind us that "The federal budget is not the same as a family budget!"

    They are right for 2 big reasons:
    1. A family can't coerce others into covering their debt. The federal government can through overt taxation and stealth taxation (inflation).

    2. Creditors generally can't pass someone's debts on to their kids when they die. The federal government can and does every single day.

    How immoral is it to saddle little kids with debts they aren't even aware of?

  • some guy||

    Now that I've made that point, someone's probably going to come in and remind us that "But the kids are getting a better world in exchange for those debts. It would be wrong to not make them share the cost!"

    To which I'll say:

    Who are you to tell them what they should value and what they should do with their yet-to-be-hard-earned wealth?

  • Will Nonya||

    "Which is precisely the point. If Washington won’t even cut spending items so small they don’t make a difference, how will it ever cut the big-ticket spending that does?"

    Simple, the wont and they don't want to.

  • montana mike||

    Sad but oh, so true. I'm pushing 60 so I doubt I'll see the shit really hit the fan, I'm concerned for my daughter, nephews and nieces who will be swamped by the fallout.

  • juliamulroy||

    my buddy's step-sister makes ==$82== an hour on the computer. She has been laid off for ==8== months but last month her payment was ==$19918== just working on the computer for a few hours. Here's the site to read more
    ==========================
    http://www.works23.com
    ==========================

  • juliajuli875||

    my roomate's mom makes $73 an hour on the computer. She has been unemployed for seven months but last month her pay was $18333 just working on the computer for a few hours. pop over to this website

    http://WWW.Works23.com

  • petarmark4||

    like Walter explained I am taken by surprise that a single mom able to profit $5487 in four weeks on the internet. visit their website
    http://WWW.JOBS72.COM

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