February 15, 2002

February 15, 2002 | Commentary on Federal Budget

The Ties that Bind

Even when the subject matter is compelling -- and it frequently isn't -- Senate budget hearings rarely make for good television. But then, they seldom feature arguments like the one that erupted on Feb. 7 between Paul O'Neill and Robert Byrd over who grew up poorer.

O'Neill, who serves as President Bush's Treasury Secretary, was upset by the harsh criticisms he was hearing from Sen. Byrd, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. Byrd had tartly informed O'Neill that his constituents weren't "well-to-do people" or "CEOs of multi-billion dollar corporations."

"Senator, I started my life in a house without water or electricity, so I don't cede to you the high moral ground of not knowing what life is like in a ditch," O'Neill said. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, replied that life was just as tough for him, adding that his family got by with no telephone and "a little wooden outhouse."

This unusual tug-of-war made it easy to overlook the apparent source of Sen. Byrd's anger -- a cartoon that appeared in the Bush budget, showing Gulliver being tied down by the Lilliputians. "At a time of national emergency," the accompanying text reads, "it is critical that the government operate effectively and spend every taxpayer dollar wisely.

"Unfortunately, federal managers are greatly limited in how they can use financial, human and other resources to manage programs; they lack much of the discretion given to their private-sector counterparts to get the job done."

Here's what sparked the senator's ire. Not a belief that people were ignorant of his humble beginnings, but the fact that the administration wants Congress to stop making fiscal sanity in Washington an all-but-impossible task.

The Bush budget contains many examples of needless congressional interference. The very page with the Gulliver cartoon points out, for example, that NASA is expressly forbidden to move aircraft that are based east of the Mississippi River to the Dryden Flight Research Center in California. It also says that the Defense Department can't ask private-sector firms to handle more than half the major maintenance and repair needed to keep its planes, tanks and vehicles running smoothly, no matter how much it might save the taxpayer.

Or how about the fact that the Agriculture Department is prohibited from closing or relocating any of its state Rural Development Offices? According to the president's budget, your tax dollars are hard at work keeping 5,600 county field offices open (more than one per county), despite the fact that many of them are unnecessary.

Mind you, these aren't just cases of government waste. We're talking about rules that prevent government agencies -- as well as state and local officials -- from being wiser and better stewards of your money. That's the situation the Bush administration is trying to change with its budget.

The main problem is that when Congress doles out money to, say, the Agriculture Department, it tells the bureaucrats specifically how to spend a good chunk of it. That's where government pork creeps in, since politicians from both parties would rather see money go toward their home districts, regardless of whether or not it's being effectively spent.

Transportation Department officials, for example, must spend $500,000 on Massachusett's "New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park Sign Project." And $190,730 for Washington's "Paden Creek visitor and salmon access." And $115,280 so that Sen. Byrd's home state can have a "Byways and Backways Program." There are thousands of such items spread through every department, costing taxpayers more than $15 billion a year.

No wonder Sen. Byrd was upset. The Gulliver cartoon wasn't unfair. It was simply too close to the truth for comfort.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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