March 18, 2005

March 18, 2005 | Commentary on Smart Growth

Getting more for less

Liberals and conservatives don't have much in common when it comes to government spending. But we can probably agree that the country would be better off if we could get the same level of government services we're getting now for less money.

We can.

Redundant and duplicative federal programs, especially between different cabinet departments, are a significant source of waste. By consolidating these programs, we can make them more efficient and more responsive.

Consider regional economic development programs. Responsibilities and money are distributed among the offices and divisions of the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Health and Human Services (HHS), Commerce, Agriculture and Treasury, as well as several smaller administrative agencies, including the Small Business Administration.

President Bush wants to consolidate these programs under the Department of Commerce. This step is long overdue, and Congress should support it. Consolidating responsibility for economic development in a single department will yield two immediate and important benefits to communities throughout the nation: more money for needy beneficiaries and less pork.

First, by combining 18 of the far-flung federal community and economic development programs into a single enterprise, the government will save millions of dollars simply by eliminating 17 of the bureaucracies that now administer these redundant programs. These 17 program directors can be eliminated, as well as all of the subalterns who head the 17 offices devoted to public affairs, congressional affairs, inter-governmental affairs, research, administration, budget, personnel, civil rights compliance and so on. The savings, once devoted to Washington bureaucracies, could be spent on cost-effective economic development projects.

Second, by consolidating the resources and responsibility for economic and community development within a single entity, the federal government will be better able to coordinate assistance and to focus on legitimate projects. Under current arrangements, characterized by dispersed responsibilities, federal development programs have degenerated into a grab bag of wasteful pork-barrel projects designed to reward influential constituencies and Washington lobbyists, often at the expense of those the programs were designed to help.

For example, consider the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. It was created in 1974 as a replacement for HUD's failed Urban Development Action Grants. It was supposed to provide housing assistance to low-income families and to improve the economic environment in their communities.

In its early days, CDBG largely focused on the poor, but in 1984, the law was changed to a formula-based distribution that would allow it to provide funds for affluent communities with "pockets of poverty." As the General Accounting Office noted in 2000, this was hardly an improvement: "Greenwich, Conn. received five times more funding per person in poverty in 1995 than that provided to Camden, N.J., even though Greenwich, with per capita income six times greater than Camden, could more easily afford its own community development needs."

Since that 2000 report, the CDBG has drifted even further from its basic purpose, as a survey of recent earmarks reveals.

In the most recent House appropriations bill for HUD, committee members included 1,032 location-specific "pork barrel" earmarks for the Community Development Block Grant program, up from the 606 in the FY 2004 bill. These include such projects as the Mark Twain House and Museum, the Lost River Cave Improvement project, the Salvador Dali Museum, the Helen Keller Birthplace Foundation, the Finger Lakes Open Lands Conservation project and the B.B. King Museum. Also included in the list is funding for dozens of university construction projects -- dormitories, libraries, and classrooms -- and several Audubon nature centers. Needy nature centers, no doubt.

There is a note of welcome hypocrisy in all this.

Recall that when the president proposed allowing faith-based organizations to receive federal funding to provide social services, some members of Congress invoked the First Amendment and its proscription on government-sponsored or -funded religion in their opposition to the plan.

But when Congress views religious organizations as local (and voting) constituents, such constitutional qualms quickly disappear, as the earmarks reveal. Federal money is slated to flow to religious groups including Catholic Charities of New Orleans, Presbyterian Medical Services of Santa Fe and United Jewish Organizations of Brooklyn.

Simply put, CDBG and similar programs waste too much money on pork barrel spending. President Bush's proposal to consolidate these programs and tighten their focus would go a long way toward redirecting resources to those people and communities in need. And that's a goal we should all be working toward.

Ron Utt of Falmouth is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D. Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow

First appeared in The Hill