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EDITORIAL: The triumph of mediocrity

How the U.S. floodplain stimulus scheme blows millions

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Bureaucrats aren't very good at running anything but endless spools of red tape. Federal red ink has just topped $16.8 trillion, showing that neither Congress nor the White House is capable of managing the public purse. Management skills are no better down the line at tiny, obscure offices within the government. The Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Agency, for example, offers an important lesson in the folly of relying on top-down efforts to fix the economy.

A recent inspector general audit uncovered significant problems in the way this agency administered the $145 million it received through President Obama's stimulus program. The investigators complained that the agency neither targeted funds correctly nor paid landowners as it should have.The conservation agency buys easement rights from private landowners in floodplains to restore them to limit damage from floods and erosion. The flood of stimulus cash put the program's administrators on a tight schedule, pressuring officials to accept any application so it could dole out as much cash as quickly as possible.The agency responded by jettisoning official appraisals. It watered down the standards used to determine who gets the money, and how much. No guidance was offered on how to document flood damage to determine eligibility. As the auditors put it, the agency failed to "demonstrate that it treated applicants fairly and equitably." At least five out of 78 landowners weren't paid what they were owed. Usually, they were paid too much.The audit found that not only was the restoration done in ways that failed to meet the program's own rules, in several cases landowners continued to use sites in ways inconsistent with the rights they had sold to the government, such as scraping off top soil with heavy machines. The agency bears much of the responsibility for this because it failed to provide clear guidance of what it meant to restore the flood plain to "natural conditions" and merely instructed state offices to "use the best science and technology." In one case, the agency paid more than $215,000 for a restoration project that included such non-natural structures as levees, and permitted the owner to install underground piping.

What is striking about the floodplain restoration program is just how ordinary the errors and inefficiencies were. There was no smoking gun of corruption, no lavish payouts or accusations of improper influence. It was a triumph of mediocrity, which is what happens when officials aren't held to account for spending other people's money wisely. In the rush to disburse stimulus cash, the agency chose to ignore procedure and failed to provide both state offices and landowners with the information they needed. The result was a waste of millions of dollars of public money, and the sites where the agency purchased the easements were in many cases not even properly restored.

It's telling that the government can't handle a small program like this. The inefficiencies grow when the programs grow and get more expensive. As program budgets rise into the billions, the public servants, with guaranteed lifetime employment, have no incentive to ensure the job is getting done right. Big government isn't the answer; neither is incompetent Little Government. The answer is restrained limited government.

The Washington Times

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