May 7, 2004 | WebMemo on Energy and Environment

The April Fools Diet: How Government Pork Fights American Obesity

With the aim of addressing America's growing obesity problem, Reps. Don Young (R-AK) and George Miller (D-CA) have proposed the Get Outdoors Act of 2004 (H.R.4100). But the Get Outdoors Act is not really about health or obesity; it is definitely, however, about fat. This legislation (proposed on April Fools' Day, no less) is a pork-filled land grab just like its model, 1999's Conservation and Reinvestment Act, and would significantly encroach upon many Americans' private property rights and drive up federal spending.

 

Rebirth of CARA

As proposed in 1999, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) would have established an off-budget trust fund to purchase land for wildlife protection, urban recreation, and other "conservation" needs.[1] The Get Outdoors Act and its Senate companion, the American Outdoors Act from Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) are a reincarnation of CARA, cleverly packaged as a public health measure to fight obesity.

 

According to Rep. Miller this legislation would "shrink Americans' waistlines by expanding the number of goal lines and foul lines in the suburbs and inner cities and by expanding the number of hiking trails, bike paths, and other public recreation opportunities throughout the country."[2] The public health link, however, is tenuous at best, given current below-capacity use of "recreation opportunities" throughout the country. Furthermore, CARA was originally proposed without any mention of public health; the obesity claims about the Get Outdoors Act seem to be nothing more than an imaginative marketing campaign

 

Get Outdoors Act Increases Spending

The federal government spent more than 2.3 trillion dollars last year, and yet Congress continues to spend more. Each of the last three budgets has increased spending by more than 7 percent, a rate almost four times inflation. The Get Outdoors Act would compound the problem by adding $3.125 billion every year to the federal budget.

 

The Get Outdoors Act's advocates say that the bill will not add to federal spending because it would be funded by a portion of the tax paid by oil companies to explore and develop the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). However, that revenue now goes into the general fund, which pays for most other federal spending; so this bill would increase overall spending.

 

Get Outdoors Act Creates a New Mandatory Program

More troublingly, the Get Outdoors Act would create a new mandatory spending program. Mandatory spending programs run on autopilot and are not annually appropriated or reviewed in the congressional budgeting process. In this manner, Congress has already declared 60 percent of the federal budget off-limits to prioritization, and the proportion of spending subject to annual appropriation shrinks every year.Compounding the problem is the fact that over the last 40 years mandatory spending has increased six times faster than discretionary spending (see Chart 1).

By taking another $3 billion off-budget, Get Outdoors Act would make it even more difficult to get federal spending under control and would elevate government land-buying (or anti-obesity spending, if you like) to a priority status in the budget. This major budget item would then escape review when Congress evaluates its spending priorities every year, no matter that other items might be more important or pressing.

Get Outdoors Act Uses Pork-Barrel Funding Formulas
Bipartisan support for the Get Outdoors Act is grounded less in a desire to conserve America's open land (or fight obesity) and more in an attempt to cash in on pork-barrel spending. The Get Outdoors Act would distribute funding to states via an assortment of programs, each of which would have its own funding formula. Large amounts would go to Alaska and Louisiana (the homes of Rep. Young and Sen. Landrieu, respectively), while other states would receive far less.

In this way, offshore drilling tax dollars-originally meant to assist areas that bore the cost of oil exploration and extraction-would be used to fund a country-wide pork-barrel land grab. Gimmicks like defining states adjoining the Great Lakes as "coastal" cannot hide the fact that the funds would be used improperly, with respect to Congress's original intent for OCS revenue, as many states unaffected by oil exploration and drilling would receive significant stipends.

Get Outdoors Act Centralizes Conservation Decisions

Land is best maintained when in the hands of private stewards than in the hands of federal bureaucrats. For example, the profit motive has led to much more reforestation of private forest lands than of public lands.[3] Indeed federal land management has led to a growing epidemic of out-of-control forest fires, by allowing large amounts of dead and dying wood to accumulate in our nation's forests.[4] Private property owners have a vested interest in the preservation and stewardship of their land and its resources. Despite this poor record, the Get Outdoors Act would place more land conservation decisions in governmental hands.

 

Americans enjoy a beautiful, vast, and diverse landscape, parts of which can benefit from conservation efforts. Although these are best undertaken by private property owners, the government can play a role in managing some areas that possess historical importance or national significance. Even then, however, the federal government should be involved only where local management is not better suited to the task. The Get Outdoors Act rejects the principles of private conservation and local control, instead endorsing public ownership of land, apparently a necessary part of improving Americans' physical fitness.

 

Already, the federal government owns approximately 25 percent of all the land in the United States and struggles to maintain its current holdings.[5] Yet Get Outdoors Act would provide more money for federal and state governments to add to their holdings. As history has shown, further centralizing conservation decisions and land ownership would be a mistake.

 

Get Outdoors Act Infringes on Private Property Rights

As the example of forest policy demonstrates, private property rights and environmental conservation often complement each other. When they do come into conflict, however, policymakers must remember that the right to private property is a fundamental American principle. 

 

Get Outdoors Act threatens this right to private property-just like CARA- by granting more power and influence over private lands to the federal government. The Get Outdoors Act would give federal land agencies statutory and regulatory authority to grab land and wield more power over property owners and local communities. Property owners would lose property rights over the management and use of their own land-with some losing land. The Act plays into the hands of special interest groups that have an agenda to drive rural landowners out. 

 

Conclusion

The Get Outdoors Act is similar to CARA, but with a difference: By packaging this legislation as a measure to encourage exercise and combat obesity, its supporters disguise their true intent. Get Outdoors Act is just a clever mechanism to increase spending and empower the federal government to seize more land from private property owners. Hopefully, this whole absurd proposal-federal land acquisition as national fitness program-will prove to be nothing more than a bad April Fools' Day joke.

 

Erin Hymel and Keith Miller are Research Assistants in, and Alison Acosta Fraser is Director of, the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy at The Heritage Foundation.



[1] Gregg VanHelmond and Angela Antonelli, "Why CARA Is Fiscally Irresponsible And A Threat To Local Land Use Decisions," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1370, May 9, 2000.

[3] David Riggs and Allison Freeman, Environmental Source: A free-market guide to environmental issues, Edited by Angela Logomasini and David Riggs, Competitive Enterprise Institute, 2002, pp. 107-109.

[4] Ibid., pp. 107-109.

[5] David Riggs, Environmental Source: A free-market guide to environmental issues, Edited by Angela Logomasini and David Riggs, Competitive Enterprise Institute, 2002, pp. 99-102.

About the Author

Alison Acosta Fraser Senior Fellow and Director of Government Finance Programs
Domestic and Economic Policy