Santorum’s Tunnel and Federal Transportation Policy

If, like me, you’re a Pennsylvanian who wants a smaller federal government, you’ve probably been scratching your head at Rick Santorum’s success in the Republican primaries. An article in today’s Washington Times on the former Pennsylvania senator’s lack of popularity in the Keystone State is instructive.

The Times singles out Santorum’s leading role in getting federal taxpayers to foot 80 percent of the bill for a tunnel project in Pittsburgh that even former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell called “a tragic mistake.” (When “Fast Eddie” dings a government project, you know it’s bad.) Indeed, the North Shore Connector was originally projected to cost $350 million but the final price tag will be closer to $528 million. (The Obama administration kindly kicked in $63 million in stimulus funds to help get the over-budget project finished.) As one local critic notes, that’s a lot of money to provide “cheap public transportation” for “Steeler and Pirates fans too lazy to walk across one of four bridges that already connect downtown and the ballparks.”

According to the Times, Santorum’s zeal for the project stemmed from a “deal” he struck with the local trade unions that would benefit from its construction:

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Corporate Welfare: A Bipartisan Love Story

I have previously discussed how multiple levels of government work together to provide businesses with taxpayer money (see here and here). And while Republican policymakers have enjoyed making political hay out of the Obama’s administration’s Solyndra problem, the truth is that both parties are willing partners in the corporate welfare racket.

The state of Indiana continues to be a perfect example. In March 2010, NPR ran a piece on the Obama administration’s efforts to “stimulate” the city of Elkhart, which at one point during the recession had the nation’s highest unemployment rate. The story was hopefully titled, “Electric Vehicles May Energize Elkhart’s Future.” One year later, the title of a new NPR piece on Elkhart is a little different: “As Elkhart’s Electric Dreams Fizzle, RVs Come Back.”

The new piece focuses on the failure of Think, an electric vehicle manufacturer, to deliver upon the promises made by the company and the politicians who gave them taxpayer handouts:

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USDA Turning Taxpayer Money into Wine

Today’s example of how the federal government has become too darn big is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Value-Added Marketing Grant program. This (relatively) little slice of corporate welfare will hand out approximately $56 million in taxpayer dollars this year to “producers of agricultural commodities” who can use the money “for planning activities and for…

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Thousands of Your Dollars Wasted on Bad Energy Policy

When President Obama took office the price of gas was $1.86 a gallon. Today it averages about $3.50. If you are “lucky” enough to live in California it is over $4.00 a gallon. Gas goes up and down but why? And more importantly what does it mean to the economy and your family?

A few simple math equations to make the point:

To fill a 20 gallon tank:

At $1.86 it costs $37.20

At $3.50 it costs $70.00

The difference of $32.80 every time you fill up your tank.

Now let’s say you have to fill up once a week. The average commuter may have to do it more and depending on the car you drive it may vary as well.

At $1.86 the cost per year is $1934.40 a year to keep your gas tank full once a week.

At $3.50 the cost per year $3640.00 a year to keep your gas tank full once a week.

A difference of $1705.60 a year for a once a week fill up for one car.

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Franken to Chu: Doggone It, Like My State’s Company

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing last week on the Department of Energy’s budget request for fiscal 2013. Chris Edwards tipped me off to a particularly galling exchange between Energy secretary Steven Chu and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN). Sen. Franken uses his allotted time to badger Chu about a federal loan that Energy conditionally committed to a Minnesota company in 2010 that apparently has yet to be approved.

The exchange begins around the 61 minute mark here. Our trusty interns, Devon Sanchez and Stephen Wooten, transcribed the exchange, which I’ll share a portion of:

Sen. Franken:

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USPS: Stuck With the Government Business Model

The U.S. Postal Service has released a new five-year plan for congressional consideration that it says would get the beleaguered government mail monopoly on sounder financial footing and thus avoid a taxpayer bailout. The plan repeats previous suggestions (i.e., workforce reductions, postal network consolidations, elimination of Saturday delivery, elimination of the retiree healthcare benefit funding requirement) and proposes an increase in the price of a first-class stamp from forty-five to fifty cents.

Whether or not it would achieve what the USPS hopes, it probably doesn’t matter given that asking Congress for greater operational flexibility is like asking a two year old to stop playing with their food. That’s why the focus should be on completely transitioning the USPS from a government-run business to a privately-run business (or perhaps businesses).

Over at the Courier Express and Postal Observer blog, Alan Robinson says that “just like all plans that came before, [the new USPS plan] started with the assumption that the Postal Service remains a quasi-governmental entity.” As a result, Robinson notes that the plan is missing two key ingredients for success that foreign posts have utilized: private capital and an expanded range of products and services.

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Earmarks are a Symptom of the Problem

Washington Post investigation identified dozens of examples of federal policymakers directing federal dollars to projects that benefited their property or an immediate family member. Members of Congress have been enriching themselves at taxpayer expense? In other news, the sun rose this morning.

According to the Post, “Under the ethics rules Congress has written for itself, this is both legal and undisclosed”:

By design, ethics rules governing Congress are intended to preserve the freedom of members to direct federal spending in their districts, a process known as earmarking. Such spending has long been cloaked in secrecy and only in recent years has been subjected to more transparency. Although Congress has imposed numerous conflict-of-interest rules on federal agencies and private businesses, the rules it has set for itself are far more permissive.

Lawmakers are required to certify that they do not have a financial stake in the actions they take. In the cases The Post examined, not one lawmaker mentioned that he or she owned property that was near the earmarked project or had a relative who was employed by the company or institution that received the earmark. The reason: Nothing in congressional rules requires them to do so, and the rules do not address proximity.

With the fox guarding the henhouse, the most one can hope to accomplish is to limit the carnage. Many pundits, politicians, and policy wonks argue that a permanent ban on earmarks would be an effective limit. Unfortunately, that’s just wishful thinking as earmarks are merely a symptom of the real problem: Congress can spend other peoples’ money on virtually anything it wants.

Take the example of Rep. Candace Miller (R-MI):

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Biennial Budgeting: Baloney Budget Reform

I don’t recall ever agreeing with the left-liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), but their new paperon the drawbacks of the federal government switching to biennial budgeting is a good read. Congressional Republicans, including House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), are the chief proponents of switching to a biennial budget cycle. By providing (qualified) support to the CBPP paper, I’m hoping to demonstrate to would-be GOP naysayers that criticism of biennial budgeting isn’t confined to one area of the ideological spectrum.

I don’t agree with everything in the paper and I don’t share some of the authors’ concerns, but here are three solid points that the paper makes:

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