During this season of thanks, rather than focusing on what Washington has done this year to disappoint us, let’s look at one thing taxpayers can be thankful for: no earmark revival. Last week the House GOP came damagingly close to resurrecting Congress’ pork-barrel spending ways. The measure may have appeared innocuous enough, but Washington’s seasoned insiders knew to be on guard. According to Transportation Weekly, Representative Don Young (R-AK) proposed “an amendment to bring back earmarks, if the earmarks go to local units of government. The present earmark ban in GOP Conference rules reads as follows: ‘...no Member shall request a congressional earmark, limited tax benefit, or limited tariff benefit, as such terms have been described in the Rules of the House.’ The Young amendment would add the parenthetical ‘(except if the recipient of the earmark is a unit of local government)’ after the word ‘earmark,’ which would have the effect of bringing back most of the earmarks…” Although Rep. Young had hoped the House Republican Conference would vote in favor of his amendment, thankfully for taxpayers everywhere his proposal did not garner enough support prompting Young to withdraw it.
No different than President Roosevelt’s Work Programs Administration (WPA), President Obama’s $788 billion stimulus program sought to create jobs for the sole sake of creating jobs – not because the economy actually demanded the jobs. But unlike the WPA, which actually succeeded in employing three million people, Obama’s “stimulus” has failed to create many jobs at all. And of the few produced, they’ve certainly not been the “shovel-ready” ones he promised. Additionally, the jobs evaporate as quickly as your tax dollars vanish before your eyes. After all, if the jobs were legitimate – necessary to occupy a void not already fulfilled in the existing market – then the private sector would have already been on the scene and stepped up to the plate long before the government got there with a plan to waste your money. One of the best examples of government making jobs for the purpose of making jobs is the nearly $1.5 million that went to build a bus station – you read that correctly, bus “station,” not to improve a bus “system” – in Manitowoc, a sleepy Wisconsin town. Manitowoc with a population of roughly 33,000 people has bus station, which hardly could be characterized in a significant – if at all – state of disrepair. In fact according to the town’s local paper, the existing structure could use only minimal updates like fixing wheel chair ramps and mending a leaky ceiling. But the really deplorable component of the building is that it has a “windowless basement.” The horror! Had Manitowoc chosen the responsible path and opted to make minor improvements to the perfectly functioning, existing station, it’s inconceivable that those improvements could have cost over $1 million.
The word, “Amtrak,” can best be described as one of the most wasteful, inefficient components of our government. For as long as most can remember, Amtrak has maintained its inability to turn a profit. Additionally, passenger travel on Amtrak only accounts for less than one half of 1 percent of all interstate travel. And despite attempts to privatize, Amtrak continues to exist as a huge black hole that mercilessly robs taxpayers. So when news recently broke about an Amtrak plan that will cost taxpayers several billion dollars, $151 billion to be exact, there’s good reason to pause and be concerned. The latest proposal is a plan to build a high-speed railway that will connect all of the major cities in the Northeast from Boston to Washington, D.C. Similar to previous attempts to expand Amtrak’s reach, this program will also end in taxpayer disappointment. While Amtrak’s status of a public-private partnership makes the situation complicated, that’s not an excuse for Washington to do nothing. Congress can and should not succumb to Amtrak’s pleas and instead work to completely privatize Amtrak. Each day Congress allows these generous subsidies to continue is a day they are failing taxpayers. A recent example demonstrates that not only does taxpayer money go to waste; taxpayers actually end up being penalized for the shortcomings of Amtrak.
There are plenty of examples where government programs come up short, but one area where we usually can count on the government to come through is in its creation and implementation of nanny-state regulations. As recent examples make clear, there’s certainly no shortage of government dictates that walk us closer and closer down the path toward a nanny state. From what size soda you’re able to purchase to how you can transport your pet, each example seems more egregious than the next. And just when you think you’ve heard the worst of them, a new one comes along to rear its ugly head: the “Safe Routes to School” program. Like most government programs, the title of this program is at best innocuous and vague. And even after examining its stated purpose: “to reduce vehicle usage, increase foot traffic, and consequently create healthier children and a cleaner environment,” a lot of questions remain unanswered. For example, a lot of ambiguity surrounds what constitutes a safe route and who determines what a safe route is. Perhaps still the most confounding element of this program is demonstrated by the amount of money the government has spent on it since 2005 – a whopping $1 billion!
In politics, there are not a lot of issues that people agree on. The one area that there is such an agreement is for government to be transparent and accountable and California’s beleaguered $68 billion bullet train project may be bringing people together in a most unexpected way since people from both sides of the tracks on this project (pun intended) are concerned about the lack of transparency and shenanigans surrounding the train. Since the project’s beginnings, lawsuits and questionable dealings have surrounded the train. It’s risen to such a level that not only is a congressional committee concerned, but the Government Accountability Office has also started to investigate the expenditure of federal funds for the project. According to California Watch, these concerns have led to requests from lawyers and others suspicious of the bullet-train project to pore over “the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s trove of documents, looking for evidence.” The article also noted that “So it’s an unusual time to purge five years’ worth of bullet train project e-mails, critics say. Nevertheless, that’s what the agency is contemplating. In February, the rail authority filed papers with the state saying it intended to enact a new policy to destroy its e-mails after 90 days. Then, on May 1, in response to a request for information from a project critic, the rail authority said it could not produce e-mails that were older than 90 days, citing the new policy.”
The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) joined the effort to oppose the Black Box Mandate. The proposed law would require all cars sold in the United States from 2015 forward to be equipped with a black box data recording device, similar to those currently found on airplanes. The Black Box Mandate would give the government huge amounts of personal data regarding the habits and movements of private citizens. This legislation not only violates Americans’ protected rights, but burdens manufacturers with an onerous new regulation whose cost will eventually be passed down to the consumer. Visit http://www.blackboxmandate.org to view the pledge and read the full text of the Black Box Mandate.
It is amazing what some politicians will do in the middle of a financial crisis. One congressman from Florida has taken it upon himself to make it just a bit worse. According to The New York Times, Representative John L. Mica (R-Fla.) has been working quite diligently on the SunRail “a 61-mile commuter rail project that the federal government ranks as one of the least cost-effective mass transit efforts in the nation.” With spending $1.2 billion in taxpayer’s money on the project one would hope that, at the very least, there would be projections of heavy ridership. Unfortunately, the rail line is only projected to serve roughly 2,150 commuters per day when operations begin in 2014. It appears that Rep. Mica is planning to use federal and state tax dollars to pick up the tap for a billion dollar project that only a couple thousand people will use.
Budgeting in Washington D.C. is neither pretty, or at times, easy to understand. Life-cycle budgeting is a lesser known budgeting term that more people should know about. It basically means that governments must consider the full life cycle cost of any investment it makes. Those costs don’t stop at just the cost to build, but also the cost to maintain and operate that project decades into the future.
Amtrak turned 40 years old in May. When people turn 40 they may have a midlife crisis which could involve buying a new car or taking a fancy trip. Amtrak’s mid-life crisis is defined by continually losing money and, now, asking for more money from taxpayers. Congress set up Amtrak in the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970. According to the Department of Transportation’s website, “The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (better known as Amtrak) is a for-profit corporation that operates intercity passenger rail services in 46 States and the District of Columbia, in addition to serving as a contractor in various capacities for several commuter rail agencies.” Amtrak has had a troubled financial past and the future doesn't look too bright.