The Cupboard is Bare
It is natural that organisms and organizations employ defense mechanisms. When governments are confronted with the threat of budgets cuts they must respond. A particularly effective technique has been described as the "Firemen First Principle." This term was coined by journalist Charles Peters in 1976. It states, "the public will support [the Clever Bureaucrat's] valiant fight against the budget reduction only if essential services are endangered. Thus, C.B. always picks on teachers, policemen, firemen first." Essential services are the first targets of a government faced with budget cuts. President Obama said Republicans have a choice during the 2013 sequester debate: "Do you want to see a bunch of first responders lose their jobs because you want to protect some special interest tax loophole?" A classic example of this technique was provided by the city of Ann Arbor. Faced with the opposition to tax increases the city laid off firefighters. At the same time they were funding an art project for $850,000 that failed to function. The dire consequences of these cuts are dutifully reported by the media. Reporting on the cuts to the Minnesota state budget the Associated Press asserted, "The blind are losing reading services. A help line for the elderly has gone silent. And poor families are scrambling after the state stopped child-care subsidies."
In order to illustrate this tragedy they mention Sonya Mills, a 39-year-old mother of eight about to lose $3,600 a month in child care subsidies. In order to be effective, these cuts must be highly visible and draconian; designed to cause maximum inconvenience to the public. During the sequester controversy Congressman Darrell Issa reported, "the Committee received information that proposed budget adjustments submitted by an National Parks Service official in the field to deal with sequestration impacts were rejected by NPS superiors in favor of cuts that would be more visible and disruptive.” Some of these cuts have crossed the line to sheer viciousness. Discussing cuts in cancer research CNN anchorwoman, Dana Bash asked Senator Harry Reid, "If you can help one child with cancer, why wouldn't you do it?" Reid responded, "Why would we want to do that?" The Pentagon halted death benefits for five service members killed over the weekend of the sequester. The Pentagon press release stated, “The department does not currently have the authority to pay death gratuities for the survivors of service members killed in action – typically a cash payment of $100,000 paid within three days of the death of a service member.” It took special congressional action to reinstate these benefits. These cuts were essential because as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi stated, "The cupboard is bare."
But is the cupboard really bare? There appears to be a class of spending in the back of the cupboard that has apparently been overlooked. This has been described as "little, tiny 'porky amendments." Senator Chuck Schumer told the Senate, “And let me say this, to all of the chattering class, that so much focuses on those little, tiny ‘ yes, porky’ amendments: The American people really don’t care.” Former Congressman David Obey once referred the cost of one of these items as, "a lousy $8 million." What could be more important than death benefits for deceased servicemen or cancer research? The National Science Foundation’s spokeswoman, Deborah Wing claims that the “NSF strives to be good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars.” How about a $384,949 federal study that looks at “Plasticity in Duck Penis Length.” Or a grant for $876,752 to study whether there is any benefit to sex among New Zealand mud snails. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $1.5 million to study biological and social factors for why “three-quarters” of lesbians are obese and why gay males are not. The Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service has awarded $3.8 million for an “African Elephant Conservation” grant that, in part, aims to “decrease human-elephant conflict.” There is a marmoset monkeys erection study. Several volumes could be filled with dubious studies by the “good stewards” of billions of taxpayers’ dollars. The National Institute of Mental Health alone spends roughly $1 billion a year on “academic research.”
Without oversight government stewards of taxpayer dollars frequently behave like the leaders of Bell, California. The city’s manager of this city of 38,000 earned an annual salary of almost $800,000. This was partially financed by the sale of two general obligation bond issues totaling $50 million. Federal officials’ salaries are regulated. Therefore they must be rewarded with other perquisites like bonuses and paid vacations or “conferences.” The DOJ spent $121 million on conferences in fiscal 2008 and 2009. The IRS spent $48,631,800 on 225 conferences in fiscal years 2010-2012. The Department of Veterans Affairs spent more than $6 million on two “conferences.”
Hundreds of government agencies spend billions of dollars of these “conferences.”The attitude of these stewards of tax dollars is perhaps best illustrated by the General Services Administration’s former Regional Commissioner, Jeff Neely. Neely was responsible for the 2010 GSA’s conference held in Las Vegas costing $823,000. Neely wrote to his friends, “We’ll get you guys a room near us, and we’ll pick up the room tab… I know I’m bad, but as Deb and I often say, why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can. Ain’t gonna last forever.”
Government officials are extremely frugal when they are dealing with their own finances. They are not so concerned when dealing with public funds. IRS workers who don’t pay their taxes still get bonuses. At the 2009 Wall Street Journal’s Economics Conference Special Assistant to the Secretary of Energy, Matt Rogers, stated, “I’m Matt Rogers. I am the Special Assistant to the Secretary of Energy and I have $134 billion that I have to disperse between now and the end of December.” Paul Hollander, a “venture capitalist,” responded to this in an email, “Matt Rogers is about to get treated like a hooker dropped into a prison exercise yard.” When he shared this with Rogers, he was relieved the find that Rogers and his friends laughed at the suggestion. But this was the whole point in Rogers making this statement.
John Dietrich is a freelance writer and the author of The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy, Algora Publishing, 2013.