Top 10 Spending Bill Boondoggles

Sunday, 08 Mar 2009 05:58 PM

By David A. Patten

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The cloud of earmarks in the $410 billion spending bill now before Congress has obscured systemic problems with the bill that are even more serious, watchdog groups reviewing the legislation tell Newsmax.

As debate on the bill resumes Monday, the focus will likely continue on oft-frivolous earmarks, including millions for researching the odor of pig urine, studying the spawning habits of shrimp, and $200,000 sought by a California Democrat for a tattoo-removal program.

The non-earmark portion of the bill, however, is also rife with controversial policies and billion-dollar boondoggles, budget analysts tell Newsmax. It would increase federal discretionary spending at more than twice the rate of inflation.

“While the public is focused on some atrocious earmarks, that shouldn’t divert the public from some amazing spending increases and unconscionable policies elsewhere in the bill,” Brian M. Riedl, lead budget analyst for the Heritage Foundation, tells Newsmax.

Based on watchdog reports and recommendations, here’s a Newsmax list of the bill’s top 10 non-earmark boondoggles:

Boondoggle #1

$97 Million for a Program That’s Being Cancelled — When the government decided to replace old nuclear warheads with new ones, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory said they needed two new buildings to produce the necessary plutonium components. One of those structures is reportedly nearing completion.

President Obama recently announced, however, that he is canceling the Reliable Replacement Warhead program based on scientists’ recommendation that it’s unnecessary. That should save the public a lot of money, right?

Think again: Officials are moving forward with the second new building anyway. The spending bill includes $97 million for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facilities at Los Alamos. That’s up from $74 million in 2008, which was a big increase from the $54 million spent in 2007. In other words, the budget for a program that is now being eliminated has increased 80 percent in the past two years.

“The question is why are they building this building?” asks Laura Peterson of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “There’s been a lot of concern about taking on a giant new construction project at Los Alamos, when the primary justification for the project is gone. From our point of view, that’s some pretty questionable funding.”

Boondoggle #2

Amtrak Rides the Gravy Train — It’s a perpetual money hog, so much so that Riedl comments Amtrak “loses more money, the more that people ride it.” Rather than encourage Amtrak to become more self-sufficient, Congress keeps using tax dollars to subsidize it.

The discretionary spending bill awards Amtrak a 10 percent budget boost. And that’s on top of the $1.3 billion Amtrak was just awarded in the $787 billion stimulus bill. Could someone pull the emergency stop, please???

Boondoggle #3

Congress Pays Itself — When President Obama warned that the current economic circumstances would require a willingness to sacrifice, that apparently didn’t include Congress. The discretionary spending bill fund contains an 11 percent increase in legislative branch operations, which members of Congress use to run their offices. The 11 percent hike is about three times the 2008 rate of inflation, and dwarfs last year’s 4 percent increase. If approved, Congress will spend $4.4 billion on its own operations.

At least some of the funds will go to promote, at least indirectly, the political interests of the congressmen themselves. “This gives lawmakers more resources to meet with more lobbyists, and also advertise themselves more back home,” Riedl tells Newsmax.

Boondoggle #4

Stealth Earmarks — When is an earmark not an earmark? Simple: When no congressman’s name is attached to it.

After an earmark has been repeatedly authorized year after year, and especially once its sponsor has left Congress, it is likely to appear as part of the basic spending bill. And once an expenditure is no longer an earmark per se, it is apt to receive far less public scrutiny.

How much of the $410 billion spending measure consists of these “non-earmark earmarks?” It takes a lot of digging to come up with a precise number, so no one knows for sure yet. But consider this: Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates there were $3.5 billion of undisclosed earmarks hidden in last year’s spending bills.

Boondoggle #5

Caving in to Castro — Most Americans probably don’t realize it, but the United States sells $780 million of agricultural and food items each year to Cuba to keep its citizens from starving. Because the Castro government was notorious for late payments, the United States required that Cuba pay in advance for its purchases.

The stimulus bill includes language that would waive this requirement, granting Cuba more favorable trade terms. The bill would also ease travel restrictions, bringing a much-needed source of cash to Castro’s Cuba.

As Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., commented on the Senate floor: “The last thing we need in this economic time is for us to be providing credit to a country that is uncreditworthy.”

Boondoggle #6

Agriculture -- Sowing Seeds for Fiscal Disaster? — Thanks to the spending bill, the budget for the Department of Agriculture jumps a remarkable 13 percent. That’s an additional $2.4 billion to run the department. While agriculture is an important part of the nation’s economy, economists do not generally expect it to play a leading role in getting the country out of the recession. Why does the department need an increase that figures to be at least four times the rate of inflation this year? That’s what independent budget analysts would like to know.

Boondoggle #7

Kicking Poor Kids Out of Rich Schools — Congressional Democrats have found billions to spend on pet projects and earmarks, but there’s at least one program they would like to eliminate. Called the D.C. Scholarship Opportunity Program, it helps disadvantaged inner city kids attend private schools. The teachers’ unions opposes the program because it relies on a dreaded voucher system.

Parents of children in the program receive $7,500 in vouchers. The vouchers enable 1,700 poor kids to escape D.C.’s overcrowded, failing public school system. Instead, they can attend private schools like Sidwell-Friends, where the Obamas send their two daughters.

Congressional guardians of the public trough have inserted language that would cancel the program after next year, unless Congress and the city school board specifically vote to reauthorize it. That’s considered highly unlikely.

Riedl’s comment: “The only spending cut in the spending bill is a measly $13 million to kick children out of their schools, while leaving billions of dollars in pork and waste. It boggles the mind. It’s amazing.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office has suggested the program could survive. But the bill directs D.C. officials to prepare a smooth transition if the program is terminated. You don’t have to be gifted to read the writing on that wall.

Boondoggle #8

Pricey Diplomacy — With former Senator Hillary Clinton at the helm, the State Department is in line for a huge budget increase under the spending plan. The budget, including billions in donations to countries abroad, will jump by 12 percent.

An obvious question: When a country is losing 700,000 jobs a month, should it increase spending to win friends and influence people abroad? One program is being cut by 60 percent, however: The Millennium Challenge Corporation, a Bush-era program that awards money to countries making Democratic reforms.

Boondoggle #9

Regulatory Excess — According to Bloomberg.com, regulatory agencies across the board would receive a huge shot in the arm. Leading the way: The Food and Drug Administration, whose budget grows by a whopping 19 percent to $2 billion.

Other examples: The Consumer Product Safety Commission budget jumps by nearly a third to $105 million. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s budget goes up 6 percent to $513 million. And the Securities and Exchange Commission, which failed to prevent the securitization of sub-prime mortgages from wrecking the economy, is rewarded with a 4 percent budget increase, to $943 million.

Boondoggle #10

32 Billion Reasons for Concern — Federal spending, due to the overall impact of the spending bill, would rise by $32 billion. That’s a budgetary expansion of about 8.3 percent, more than twice the rate of inflation.

And that doesn’t take into account the $700 billion bailout or the $787 billion fiscal stimulus plan. All this in a year when 4 million Americans have lost their jobs, and the federal budget deficit is expected to exceed $1.3 trillion.

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