Debt

How Special-Interest Legislation Created a Government Behemoth

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

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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.