- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2000

On May 11 the House of Representatives voted 315 to 102 to pass the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) which is now being considered by the Senate. Few of the House members voting for CARA knew or cared about its specific provisions. It was enough for them to know the bill would have large amounts of money for home constituents and would be read as a "pro-environmental" vote.
CARA creates a dedicated fund $3 billion a year for pork-barrel spending, which would come from the $4 billion in royalties now being received annually from federal OCS oil and gas tracts. This money would effectively be removed off budget. No balancing of federal priorities would occur and spending is automatic without regard to competing claims on the federal dollar. Almost a third of the money can be used by governments to acquire land. When governments in the United States cumulatively own more than 35 percent of the land area, an additional $900 million per year is not needed to add further holdings.
CARA throws money at the states according to broad distribution formulas that take little account of individual state circumstances. Nevada with 80 percent of its land already in federal ownership would nevertheless receive $13 million per year for new acquisitions.
CARA provides that the Congress must individually approve every federal acquisition amounting to as much as $450 million per year in total. This could be twenty acres in Missouri. It would not only be congressional micromanagement at its worst but a marvelous license for future congressional pork on a grand scale.
Although the land acquisition provisions of the bill have been the focus of public criticism, the most egregious part mandates a full $1 billion for "coastal states" to mitigate the "impacts" of the federal program for oil and gas leasing on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). In order to spread the money around, Michigan not coincidentally the home state of John Dingell, an early leading sponsor and other Great Lake states are defined as coastal. There has never been a federal oil and gas lease in the Great Lakes.
Indeed, today only six states Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas have any significant federal oil and gas development off their coastlines. There has been virtually no new leasing in the Atlantic or Pacific for a number of years.
Yet, CARA would distribute money to 30 states. The pattern of funding defies any rational understanding. New York State would get $40 million per year while Maine with a long and ecologically sensitive coastline would get $15 million. Illinois would receive $13 million while Georgia, with a 100-mile stretch of Atlantic coastline, would get $7 million. Pennsylvania which borders on a small part of Lake Erie would receive $7 million while Oregon with its long and beautiful Pacific coastline would receive $6 million.
The biggest winners would be Alaska ($89 million per year), California ($67 million), Florida ($69 million), Louisiana ($285 million), Mississippi ($61 million), and Texas ($131 million). Little oil or gas has been found in federal waters off Alaska and almost no development has occurred. There has not been any new federal oil and gas leasing off California since the mid-1980s.
But Alaskans chair both the House Resources Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The majority leader, Trent Lott, is from Mississippi, another big winner. Louisiana gets the biggest payments and also happens to have two key Democratic senators. In the House of Representatives, it is politically necessary to spread the money among the most populated states, accounting for New York State getting so much more than Maine.
It is all a spectacle of Congress at its worse. Pay off enough members, CARA is telling us, and it seems you can get virtually anything passed. If the real purpose of CARA is simply better coastal management, why should Louisiana receive $285 million per year for its coastline improvements, and Washington State $15 million? What will Alaska a state with a very long coastline but one that is very sparsely settled in most places do with another $87 million a year for its coastal efforts? On the whole, CARA would simply shower large amounts of money based on the flimsiest of excuses on politically powerful recipients.
In the new era of budget surpluses, it was inevitable that the prospect of "free money" would prove too great a temptation for many members of Congress to resist. If CARA becomes law, Congress will be behaving more like an alcoholic finding a new bottle than any process of sober legislating.

Robert H. Nelson is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He is the author of "A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service"

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