Thursday, April 8, 2010

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), or stimulus, has been subject to a great deal of criticism since its enactment in February 2009. Questions have been raised about the number of jobs “created,” while dozens of wasteful expenditures have been documented.

Unfortunately for taxpayers, the abuse of tax dollars has become absurd, as the latest stimulus “Help wanted” sign is up at the corner of K Street and Madison Avenue. The source of these plum jobs is the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is supporting lobbying and advertising campaigns aimed at “correcting” Americans’ recreational and consumption habits rather than initiatives that would truly alleviate unemployment.

On March 19, HHS awarded $372 million in stimulus funds to the states to support programs that are supposed to reduce obesity and curb tobacco use through policymaker education (lobbying) and “pricing strategies” (politically correct rhetoric for taxes), among other tactics. The money is part of a $650 million Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) program authorized by the ARRA, Communities Putting Prevention to Work. An earlier round of grants included $977,000 for the District of Columbia to purchase BlackBerrys to help smokers quit the habit.

The stimulus package was supposed to alleviate the Great Recession’s burden on struggling Americans. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the legislation “can be summed up in one word: jobs.” Since President Obama placed his signature on the stimulus, 2.16 million Americans have lost their jobs, total unemployment is at 14.9 million, and the Great Debt stands at $12.7 trillion.

The HHS announcement specified that the grants will “inform policy makers” and “support pricing strategies” - both of which would by definition qualify as lobbying activities. More specifically, changes in taxes on tobacco products and restrictions on unhealthy foods must be made by state lawmakers. Therefore, if federal funding “supports” such activities, the money really can only be used to lobby state and local policymakers.

Clearly, these programs misuse, abuse and waste stimulus funding. Moreover, they directly contravene HHS funding guidelines, which state, “No part of appropriated funds shall be … related to any activity designed to influence legislation or appropriations pending before the Congress or any State or local legislature” (CDC’s AR-12 lobbying restrictions).

However, states already have specifically requested funds for lobbying efforts. The Wisconsin Department of Health submitted a $3 million stimulus proposal to hire lobbyists. If funding was allocated for the project, these influencers would be charged with advocating for stricter bans on flavored tobacco products. At a time when the unemployment rate in Wisconsin is 9.6 percent, it is ridiculous to spend federal stimulus dollars on Gucci-shoed lobbyists rather than real jobs.

In addition to “hiring” lobbyists, states are seeking to influence individuals’ behavior through awareness campaigns to reduce obesity and encourage healthy eating. These programs not only provide few jobs and questionable results, they also siphon thousands from the Treasury every time an advertisement airs. Healthy living is important, but its inclusion in an economic stimulus package is unhealthy for economic growth.

Unfortunately, the stimulus buck doesn’t stop at the advertising and lobbying efforts. Some states are implementing stimulus-funded initiatives that damage economic opportunities in exchange for efforts to force individuals to change the way they eat, drink and smoke. Some of the CDC money is being spent to “encourage” (lobby) municipal leaders to rezone cities by allowing fast food, “unhealthy” beverages and tobacco to be sold only in certain areas. The perverse result could put those stores and restaurants located in the “wrong” zones out of business, thereby eliminating local jobs, all in small businesses.

The White House and Congress keep talking about focusing on jobs; the rhetoric will only grow louder as Election Day approaches. At the very least, elected officials should stop wasting stimulus funds on K Street and Madison Avenue in an attempt to change Americans’ recreational and consumption habits and focus on initiatives that place more “Help wanted” signs on Main Street.

Tom Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which recently launched, aimed at holding policymakers accountable for stimulus spending.

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