by Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D.
As Congress and President Barack Obama move closer to devising a federal fiscal stimulus package, Washington's lobbyists and many of their benefactors in Congress have ramped up efforts to make sure that their clients and preferred constituents get a piece of the action. As the proposed volume of spending on that package has risen from the earlier $300 billion to $825 billion, these efforts have intensified, and more have joined in the money scramble.
Indeed, not since late 2001, after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon unleashed an unprecedented business, local government, and lobbyist assault on the federal budget, has there been such a fiscal feeding frenzy chomping its way through the halls of Congress--and through the pockets of America's beleaguered taxpayers. Members of Congress and the President should do whatever they can to make sure that the players in this revival of the Beggar's Opera are not rewarded.
Perhaps typical of the frenzy underway after 9/11 was the approach taken by Representative Jim Moran (D-VA), who exclaimed in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, "It's an open grab bag, so let's grab." Moran was not alone in welcoming a greedy grab for whatever tax dollars he could get: In the days after the attack, Washington, D.C., witnessed a parade of petitioners marching through town as a Who's Who of the American business community, trade associations, and state governments came together in an uncommon spirit of sacrifice: offering to sacrifice the hard-earned income of the taxpayers for the benefit of their own industries or states.
With the country confronting the prospect of one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the taxpayers who fund the federal government's operation are again under assault by the same crowd of wealthy, influential constituents seeking a piece of what many expect will be massive volumes of new federal spending.
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The above-described instances of state and local governments, not-for-profits, and businesses seeking greater subsidies from the federal government reflect only a small sample of the kinds of institutions and organizations making such requests and the areas of activity on which they are focused. In the transportation area alone, organizations such as the American Public Transit Association, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, the Associated General Contractors, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Building America's Future are among some of the other groups competing with AASHTO for more federal transportation infrastructure spending.
Similar lists could be produced of those requesting more federal spending on the environment, labor unions, education, social welfare, and national parks, to name just a few areas that are of interest to the growing list of petitioners. As Congress gets closer to enacting a stimulus plan, the list of petitioners and self-identified needy components of our economy will certainly grow even more, both in number and in scope.
In a normal legislative year, any one of these influential organizations and their congressional benefactors might be expected to get some piece of the action, as a new President may feel compelled to accommodate some of them. For the new Obama Administration, so much pressure from so many organizations might be seen as hobbling its freedom in crafting a cost-effective stimulus plan that does what it is supposed to d help jump-start the private economy at minimal cost and interference.
But 2009 is no ordinary year, and the sheer magnitude of the special pleadings--which by now probably exceed in cost several years' worth of the nation's gross domestic product--not to mention the dozens of six- or eight- or 12-point recovery plans, should make most of these self-indulgent schemes easy to ignore for a determined President ready to make his mark and do the right thing.
Not every leading institution or organization is seeking a handout, and some even question whether a severe recession is such a bad thing. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, argues that the credit crunch should be seen as a welcome "reality check" for a climate of "unsustainable greed." But while some others might share that view, the behavior of the many above-cited petitioners suggests that unsustainable greed is alive and well--at least in Washington, D.C.
Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., is Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.