- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2004

One issue missing from the 2004 presidential elections debate is wasteful federal spending that yearly robs hundreds of billions of dollars from hardworking taxpayers.

John Kerry won’t touch it because the base of his party isn’t into cutting spending (unless it’s in the Defense Department or intelligence agencies).

Democrats favor more spending, not less. President Bush avoids talking about it lest he offend a key constituency in what is turning into a tight election. To date, Mr. Bush hasn’t vetoed a single spending bill, no matter how pork-laden.

This is a shame because the government is needlessly spending billions of dollars on programs we do not need, cannot afford and that do not work.

Let’s begin with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a fat bureaucracy of 110,000 employees and 7,400 offices across the country that has grown far beyond any national need. It is a filled with subsidies and loan programs that have long been condemned by investigators and auditors as wasteful giveaways to the rich and powerful.

Take, for example, the USDA Market Access Program that doles out corporate welfare checks to some of the biggest, richest industries in U.S. agriculture. Last year, USDA gave $110 million to a variety of businesses, including $3.8 million to the Wine Institute (its president earns $595,000 a year), $1.2 million to the Peanut Council, $3.4 million to the Soybean Association, $2.3 million to the Potato Promotion Board, $864,000 to the Pet Food Institute, and $2.2 million to the California Prune Board, among dozens of other agriculture businesses seeking handouts.

The $2.1 billion Bureau of Indian Affairs, called the “Indian Enron,” has been one of the government’s most mismanaged agencies, squandering billions on programs that have enriched consultants, lawyers and many bureaucrats. But all this has helped few Indians who remain one of our poorest minorities. BIA Trustee Paul Homan has testified the “vast majority of upper and middle management at the BIA were incompetent.”

After decades of stinging audit reports exposing tens of billions of dollars in waste, fraud and abuse, not one senior manager has ever been removed from office. “It would be hard to find an agency filled with as many scandals as this one,” a government auditor told me.

The Commerce Department is a one-stop shopping center for billions in corporate welfare that waste-fighters have railed against for years. One of the worst is the Economic Development Administration, a fat $417 million boondoggle that gives out grants and loans to states, localities and businesses, financing everything from yacht harbors to theater renovations on the theory such spending will boost employment in economically depressed areas.

To date there is no evidence any EDA money has resulted in any net new jobs. The funds poured into these areas have to be taxed away from other communities, leaving them with fewer jobs in the process.

Consider the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s $5.9 billion Community Development Block Grants, a waste-ridden program that has become sort of a campaign ATM machine for lawmakers seeking re-election. CDBG grants were supposed to go to the poorest communities to combat poverty, but over several decades its eligibility formula has broadened to include some of the wealthiest cities and towns — from Greenwich, Conn. to Newport Beach, Calif.

Funding has gone to refurbish shopping malls, restore ritzy hotels and put in parking garages for real estate developments that benefited wealthy investors. In most cases, the investors would have ponied up their own money without the program. The White House Office of Management and Budget has called the program “ineffective.” Federal auditors call it “a scandal.”

One of the worst scandals is the government’s costly duplication. There are at least 50 different homeless programs in eight different agencies; 26 food and nutrition programs in six agencies; 44 job training programs in nine agencies; and 342 different economic development programs throughout the government, often working at cross-purposes.

Now there are 716 different grant programs dishing out more than $400 billion yearly to state and local governments, each with its own costly regulations, applications and mandates.

If you want to know the full extent of waste in Washington, get a copy of an eye-opening new report from the Cato Institute titled “Downsizing the Federal Government,” by Chris Edwards, Cato’s director of fiscal policy studies.

The report offers proposals that would save taxpayers $300 billion, which would balance the budget in five years without touching Mr. Bush’s tax cuts.

How? Terminate business subsidies like those going to the wine industry, privatize commercial activities like Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service, and scale back the grant programs.

At $2.4 trillion a year (it was just $600 billion under Jimmy Carter), the government has become too big and unwieldy for anyone to oversee, least of all Congress, which no longer conducts any serious oversight. It’s time to prune government back to a more manageable and more affordable size.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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