Political Support for Energy’s Loan Guarantees

Several weeks ago, 127 House Republicans joined 155 Democrats to defeat an amendment introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) that would have shut down the Department of Energy’s Title 17 loan guarantee program. That’s the program that gave birth to Solyndra, which has come to symbolize the failure of the Obama administration’s crony capitalist policies.

Why would members of Congress, and Republicans in particular, continue to support this federal boondoggle incubator? A new paper from Cato adjunct scholar Veronique de Rugy that looks at the Energy loan guarantees explains:

One reason is it serves three powerful constituencies: lawmakers, bankers, and the companies that receive the subsidized loans. Politicians are able to use loan programs to reward interest groups while hiding the costs. Congress can approve billions of dollars in loan guarantees with little or no impact to the appropriations or deficit because they are almost entirely off-budget. Moreover, unlike the Solyndra case, most failures take years to occur, allowing politicians to collect the rewards of granting a loan to a special interest while skirting political blame years later when or if the project defaults. It’s like buying a house on credit without having a trace of the transaction on your credit report.

Veronique notes that most of the money for the loan guarantees issued under section 1705 of Title 17 have gone to large and established companies:

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Republicans Join Democrats to Save Corporate Welfare (Again)

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) introduced three amendments to the recently passed Energy & Water appropriations bill that would have eliminated a slew of business subsidies at the Department of Energy. Unfortunately, House Republicans once again teamed up with their Democratic colleagues to keep the corporate welfare spigot flowing.

From The Hill:

The largest spending cut proposal came from Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), which would have eliminated the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy account at the Department of Energy and used the $1.45 billion in savings toward deficit reduction. Like other Republicans, McClintock argued that this account needlessly spends money on questionable private investments that have not led to any measurable returns. But the House rejected McClintock’s amendment in a 113-275 vote, in which 113 Republicans voted for it but 107 Republicans joined every Democrat in opposition.

From a second article from The Hill:

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) proposed ending all nuclear energy research subsidies to private companies, which would have saved $514 million and used that money to lower the deficit. But the House rejected that amendment in a 106-281 vote that divided Republicans 91-134. McClintock also proposed language cutting fossil energy research subsidies, which would have saved $554 million. But the House killed that amendment 138-249, as Republicans split again 102-123.

A few comments:

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My ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Prediction

Policymakers have been kicking the fiscal policy can down the road for years. That can is going to reappear shortly after the November elections when policymakers will be forced to confront scheduled tax increases, mandated spending cuts, and – once again – the debt ceiling. (I’m assuming, quite confidently, that nothing gets resolved before the elections.) The combination of events is being called the “fiscal cliff” as the failure to resolve these issues would cause the economy to go back into recession in 2013 according to conventional economic forecasters.

The Congressional Budget Office recently upped the alarm ante with its projection that the combination of tax increases and spending cuts would cause the economy to contract in the first half of 2013. The CBO also warned, however, that “eliminating or reducing the fiscal restraint scheduled to occur next year without imposing comparable restraint in future years would reduce output and income in the longer run relative to what would occur if the scheduled fiscal restraint remained in place.”

The cynic in me believes that this is precisely what policymakers want to hear.

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Disadvantaged Minority: Non-Beneficiaries of Government

The Hill reports that “The Commerce Department is considering naming Arab Americans a socially and economically disadvantaged minority group that is eligible for special business assistance” through its Minority Business Development Agency. I would argue that the federal government should not favor people of one particular ethnic backgrounds over others. However, I think the bigger issue here is that a Commerce determination in the affirmative would be yet another step in the direction of greater government dependency.

Citing Census Bureau data, the Wall Street Journal’Phil Izzo recently reported that 49.1 percent of the U.S. population “lives in a household where at least one member received some type of government benefit in the first quarter of 2011.” According to Izzo, that’s up from 30 percent in the early 1980s.

More troubling figures come from economist Gary Shilling. The October 2009 edition of Shilling’s Insight investment newsletter (not available online) provided updated figures for government dependency that he has been calculating for decades. Shilling separates Americans into two categories, government beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries, and defines the former as people who “depend on government, directly or indirectly, for a major part of their income.”

As of 2007 (before the recession), Shilling estimated that 58.2 percent of the population were government beneficiaries. That figure would have certainly risen through the recession and, as he notes, the upward trend in government dependency “is ominous because it’s only a taste of what lies ahead when the postwar babies retire and move heavily into Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”

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White House Cronyism Is Disturbing, But Not New

The Obama campaign is trying to hang so-called “vulture” capitalism around Mitt Romney’s neck, but as two excellent opinion pieces explain, it’s the administration’s crony capitalism that’s the really disturbing story.

The first piece, written by the Wall Street Journal’s Kim Strassel, explains the difference:

Like Mr. Romney, Mr. Obama has presided over bankruptcies, layoffs, lost pensions, run-ups in debt. Yet unlike Mr. Romney, Mr. Obama’s C-suite required billions in taxpayer dollars and subsidies, as well as mandates, regulations, union payoffs and moral hazard.

Strassel singles out the Solyndra debacle and the administration’s bailout of the unions General Motors. She notes that the alternative to profit-driven free enterprise, which the president is critical of, “is an Obama capitalism that is driven by political favoritism, government subsidies, mandates, and billions in taxpayer underwriting.”

In the second piece, Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen says that “if Romney’s record in private equity is fair game, then so is Obama’s record in public equity—and that record is not pretty.” Thiessen lists numerous examples of companies that the administration gambled on with taxpayer money and lost. But what’s really disturbing is the administration’s cronyism:

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What’s ‘Wacky’ About Wanting to Eliminate the USDA?

Over at the Washington Post‘s PostPartisan blog, Jonathan Bernstein discusses the rising influence of the “Ron Paul crowd” on Republican state party platforms. Bernstein cites a derisive piece from Ed Kilgore on a draft platform being considered by the Iowa Republican Party:

Now, a new group — the Ron Paul crowd — is taking over some formal GOP structures, including in Iowa. Ed Kilgore has a great post detailing some of the wackier things they’ve put in the official Iowa Republican Party platform — for example, eliminating the Agriculture Department. In Iowa. Oh, there’s plenty more, including phasing out Social Security and Medicare; overall, it has called for a federal government half the size of what Paul Ryan has advocated.

I don’t take issue with Bernstein’s contention that a platform like the one being proposed by the Iowa GOP would be a problem for most Republican politicians because the overall program “is just spectacularly unpopular with the general public.” I quickly scrolled through the hundreds of proposed “planks” in the platform and, as a libertarian, often found myself shaking my head and rolling my eyes. So it struck me as odd that of all the ideas in the platform that one could deem to be “wacky,” Bernstein chose to focus solely on planks that would cut – admittedly, dramatically – federal spending.

Bernstein continues:

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Freshman Republicans Switch from Tea to Kool-Aid

Last week the Club for Growth released a study of votes cast in 2011 by the 87 Republicans elected to the House in November 2010. The Club found that “In many cases, the rhetoric of the so-called “Tea Party” freshmen simply didn’t match their records.” Particularly disconcerting is the fact that so many GOP newcomers cast votes against spending cuts.

The study comes on the heels of three telling votes taken last week in the House that should have been slam-dunks for members who possess the slightest regard for limited government and free markets. Alas, only 26 of the 87 members of the “Tea Party class” voted to defund both the Economic Development Administration and the president’s new Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia program (see my previous discussion of these votes here) and against reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank (see my colleague Sallie James’s excoriation of that vote here).

I assembled the following table, which shows how each of the 87 freshman voted. The 26 who voted for liberty in all three cases are highlighted. Only 49 percent voted to defund the EDA. Only 56 percent voted to defund a new corporate welfare program requested by the Obama administration. And only a dismal 44 percent voted against reauthorizing “Boeing’s bank.” That’s pathetic.

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The States Are Already Getting Bailed Out

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) advise the states to get their fiscal houses in order instead of holding out hope for a bailout from federal taxpayers. That’s sound advice. However, the states already effectively get bailed out by federal taxpayers each and every year.

The first chart shows that the federal government has accounted for over a third of total state spending in recent years. The increase can be attributed to federal “stimulus” spending. The federal government’s share will retreat as the economy (hopefully) continues to strengthen and federal policymakers limit spending increases in the face of mounting debt. However, getting the federal government’s share of total state spending back to, say, 30 percent would be nothing to celebrate.

The post-stimulus decrease in Washington’s generosity to the states has state and local officials—and the special interests that ultimately benefit from the Beltway-to-State money laundering operation—concerned. Reporters typically relay these concerns to the public without adding any historical context. The following chart provides that context, and it indicates that the concern shouldn’t be that the states won’t be getting as much money; rather, the concern should be that the states have become dangerously reliant on federal money.

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