Every so often Congress steps back from the monumental issues of war, peace, and radio talk show hosts to remind us that it is fundamentally about power. A case in point: Last week's bi-partisan passage by the House of the Regional Economic and Infrastructure Development Act of 2007.
Proudly modeled on the Great Society-era Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the legislation aims to spend $1.25 billion between 2008 and 2012 to set up five regional commissions that would hand out money to state and local governments, Indian tribes, and nonprofit organizations "to promote economic and infrastructure development."
Those buzz words signal an open-ended commitment to eventually spend billions and billions of federal dollars in pursuit of elusive "economic development"—much like the ARC itself. Long a target of federal pork busters, ARC constantly finds new "needs" to be met. Lately, that has involved millions to subsidize broadband deployment within its 13-state purview. The Senate recently passed legislation which would take ARC's funding from about $95 million in 2007 to $109 million by 2011.
No wonder so many members want their own commissions. Also, with earmarks in federal appropriations receiving so much negative press recently, a network of ostensibly independent commissions could prove a great way to funnel cash back home.
These new commissions would be the Delta Regional Commission, the Northern Great Plains Regional Commission, the Southeast Crescent Regional Commission, the Southwest Border Regional Commission, and the Northern Border Regional Commission. In total, all or parts of 26 states would be eligible to receive funds from a new commission were the bill to become law.
The Southwest border region alone is massive. It includes all counties within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. That's 11 counties in New Mexico, 65 counties in Texas, 10 counties in Arizona, and 7 counties in California for a combined population of about 29 million. Figure a Peru or Iraq-sized populace with needs to be serviced.
The Congressional Budget Office relates that "at least 40 percent of the authorized funds would be used for grants to develop transportation, telecommunications, and other basic public infrastructure. Remaining funds would be used for other economic development activities, such as providing job training, improving public services, and promoting conservation, tourism, and development of renewable and alternative energy projects."
If that mission statement sounds like a lot of overlap with existing local, state, and federal entities, well, no one cares. All that the backers of bill care about are more photo ops with giant checks and more ribbon-cuttings.
Bill opponent Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) noted during debate on the bill that the commissions would spend millions in administrative overhead doing what other organizations already do in his state. He was politely ignored.
In addition, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) noted that the bill does not forbid commission funds from being spent on lobbying efforts. Anyone familiar with the economic development racket at the state and local level knows what that means: lobbyists and consultants will be hired and directed to cook up various deals involving public money flowing to private hands for work of dubious quality. Jordan's attempt to fix this oversight was slapped down on the House floor.
And for all the talk of the commissions being a response to "grassroots" efforts to target persistent problems, bill sponsor Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) does not sound like he has a free-form, problem-solving process in mind.
"We need standard procedures. We need a voting structure," Oberstar said in arguing for his bill. "Commonality establishment of local economic development districts, a consistent method for distributing economic development funds, a uniform set of procedures that will apply to all of the commission, and, finally, with commonality then we can have uniform evaluation standards of the results of these commissions."
In short, the feds want to play the economic development/economic incentives game along with the states, regions, counties, and cities. Wonderful. Not only that, but it is perfectly reasonable to expect that in the near future that development dollars from the Northern Great Plains Regional Commission will compete with a plan funded by the Southeast Crescent Regional Commission for a corporate relocation of a firm located in the zone of the Northern Border Regional Commission, which will probably be offering its own incentive package for the firm to stay put.
This sort of thing routinely goes on at the state and local level now. The proposed federal commission framework would only make it worse. But what reveals the plan as a totally self-serving political construct is the way one proponent framed the supposed problem the commissions would fix.
"In short, Mr. Speaker, our mills are closing, our young people are leaving, and too many of our workers are looking for work," one Maine congressman lamented.
In other words people are voting with their feet and moving to where they can find jobs in the great and wonderful American labor market. With a Census coming up and reapportionment after that, those private choices are a mortal threat to certain members of Congress who might be re-districted out of their seats.
If trying to reverse that trend is not worth a few hundred million dollars a year, what is?
reason contributor Jeff Taylor writes from North Carolina.