Federal Funds for Cleaning Up Abandoned Mines

An article in the Wall Street Journal offers another example of the problem with the federal government tackling issues that should be left to the states to resolve. Congress passed a law in 1977 requiring coal companies to pay a fee that was to be used to help the states clean up abandoned mines. As is often the case, the distribution of funds to the states has been distorted by politics:

Wyoming officials figured they would get large payouts every year because their state was producing so much coal. But the money had to be “appropriated” by Congress, meaning lawmakers had to vote each year on who would receive it. That often didn’t happen, so a lot of the money sat unused, including hundreds of millions of dollars that Wyoming officials believed belonged in their state.

In 2006, as parts of the law were set to expire, Sen. Mike Enzi (R., Wyo.) won passage of a measure that allowed the money to flow as “mandatory” spending, meaning it didn’t have to be voted on by Congress each year. In addition, it allowed Wyoming, three other states and three Native American tribes to use their money, including funds not distributed in prior years, with virtually no strings attached. Those four states and three tribes were certified as having taken care of their most severe abandoned coal mine problems. Other states had to use the money more narrowly for mine problems.

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Welfare and Private Charity

new policy paper from my colleague Michael Tanner analyzes the growth in the American welfare state and concludes that “throwing money at the problem has neither reduced poverty nor made the poor self-sufficient.” Michael makes an important point that—in my experience—most journalists don’t seem to appreciate:

In addition, whatever the intention behind government programs, they are soon captured by special interests. The nature of government is such that programs are almost always implemented in a way to benefit those with a vested interest in them rather than to actually achieve the programs’ stated goals… Among the nonpoor with a vital interest in antipoverty programs are social workers and government employees who administer the programs and business people, such as landlords and physicians, who are paid to provide services to the poor. Thus, anti-poverty programs are usually more concerned with protecting the prerogatives of the bureaucracy than with actually fighting poverty.

That’s one reason why you have federal officials actually celebrating the fact that more and more Americans are signing up for food stamps. Sure, adding millions of people to the food stamps roll is good for the Department of Agriculture’s budget, but is it good for the country? Perhaps if one thinks that government bureaucracies are ideally suited to provide for the less fortunate. However, that’s a tough claim to make given the fraud, abuse, and wasteful bureaucratic overhead costs associated with the government model. And let’s not forget that the government is not a charity; rather, it must resort to compulsion and force in order to carry out its politically-inspired objectives.

Instead of celebrating government dependency, we ought to be celebrating those private charities that are effectively meeting the needs of the less fortunate through voluntary donations. For example, Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) recently went to the House floor to laud a private charity called Convoy of Hope. From Paul’s speech:

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General Services Administration: Let the Taxpayers Eat Cake

The head of the General Services Administration, which is the federal government’s procurement and property manager, has resigned in the wake of a report from the agency’s inspector general that uncovered extravagant spending at a GSA “training conference” in Las Vegas. Here’s the Washington Post’s summary of festivities: Among the “excessive, wasteful and in some cases impermissible” spending the…

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Postal Problems: the Role of Government Micromanagement

Postal expert Michael Schuyler has released a follow-up to his January paper that compared the recent financial performance of the U.S. Postal Service to foreign postal service providers. Not surprisingly, the USPS has fared relatively poorly in comparison to its foreign counterparts. In his new paper, Schuyler looks at the role government micromanagement plays and finds that “Foreign posts have much more flexibility than USPS to adjust operations to keep costs in line with revenue.”

The following are some key points:

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How Not to Make the Case for Terminating Federal Programs

Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney recently gave the following response to a reporter’s question on what programs he would cut:

Of course you get rid of Obamacare, that’s the easy one, but there are others: Planned Parenthood, we’re gonna get rid of that. The subsidy for Amtrak, I would eliminate that. The National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, both excellent programs, but we can’t afford to borrow money to pay for these things.

It’s good that Romney can actually name federal programs that he would terminate (even if they’re relatively small programs). But how on earth does he expect to garner support from Congress to terminate the NEA and NEH after having called them “excellent programs”? Sorry, but the “federal government is broke” argument won’t get the job done. In fact, it’s just a cop out that Republican politicians often use to avoid having to provide a coherent, principled justification for spending cuts.

Last year, I criticized the Boehner Republicans in the House for making a similarly weak case for spending cuts:

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Paul Ryan’s Budget: It’s Still Big Government

Chris Edwards provided an ample overview of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget proposal, so I won’t rehash the numbers. Instead, I’ll just add a few comments.

Democrats and the left will squeal that Paul Ryan’s budget proposal is a massive threat to the poor, the sick, the elderly, etc, etc. It’s baloney, but a part of me thinks that he might deserve it. Why? Because the excessive rhetoric employed by the left to criticize lower spending levels for domestic welfare programs isn’t much different than the excessive rhetoric Ryan uses to argue against sequestration-induced reductions in military spending. For instance, Ryan speaks of the “devastation to America’s national security” that sequestration would allegedly cause. (See Christopher Preble’s The Pentagon Budget: Myth vs. Reality).

Now I’m sure that I’ll receive emails admonishing me for failing to recognize that the Constitution explicitly gives the federal government the responsibility to defend the nation while the constitutionality of domestic welfare programs isn’t quite so clear. Okay, but what are Ryan’s views on the constitutionality of domestic welfare programs?

At the outset of Ryan’s introduction to his plan, he quotes James Madison and says that the Founders designed a “Constitution of enumerated powers, giving the federal government broad authority over only those matters that must have a single national response, while sharply restricting its authority to intrude on those spheres of activity better left to the states and the people.” That’s nice, but then he proceeds to make statements like this:

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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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