If you want to understand how difficult it is to cut the federal
deficit — it will surpass $400 billion in the 2007 budget — take a look at
the Byrne grants. Named after New York City police officer Edward Byrne, who
was killed by drug dealers, the grants have provided annually about $500
million to local law-enforcement efforts since the program was signed into
law by the first President Bush. Critics on the left and the right consider
the program to be ill-conceived and ineffective, and they've urged
Washington to eliminate the grants. But Congress keeps pouring millions into
David Mulhausen, a policy analyst with the conservative Heritage
Foundation, considers the Byrne grants to be mostly "pork projects." He sees
"a big accountability problem."
Mulhausen is not alone. The White House Office of Management and
Budget studied the Byrne grants and gave the program a 13 percent rating for
results and accountability. That's an F-.
Last year, the National Taxpayers Union and Citizens Against
Government Waste signed a letter urging congressional appropriators to
eliminate the Byrne grants.
No such luck. President George W. Bush, to his credit, has
departed from his big-spending ways in seeking to reduce — and now to
eliminate — Byrne grants, as part of the administration's ongoing post-9/11
effort to streamline U.S. Department of Justice funding in order to maximize
the money spent on homeland security. According to the OMB, the Bush
administration and Congress have reduced Byrne-grant funding by two-thirds
Alex Conant of the OMB explained that "federal law-enforcement
funds need to be spent where they are most effective, and Byrne grants have
failed to demonstrate significant effectiveness."
Tom Finnigan of Citizens Against Government Waste noted how the
administration has tried to figure out which programs don't work and de-fund
them — "and yet Congress earmarks these funds every year, year after year."
And, "If (members of Congress) can't cut programs that are
ineffective and wasteful, then it just shows they are incapable of spending
restraint." Too true.
That's the problem. Columnists and fiscal watchdogs all agree
that federal spending is out of control. Democrats are having a grand time
slamming Bush for his big spending, but as soon as Bush tries to cut an
actual program, it becomes a vital endeavor, the loss of which will be
harmful to hardworking taxpayers.
Pork-happy lawmakers rush to defend the program. Sens. Tom
Harkin, D-Iowa, Mark Dayton, D-Minn., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., all have
boasted that they want to keep bankrolling Byrne grants. If you come from
farm country, you talk like Leahy — and hail the grants as important for "a
rural state." Or you say that the funding is essential to fight
methamphetamine abuse — as Harkin and Dayton argued — even though local
officials are charged with enforcing those laws.
You would never guess that Byrne grants also funded bad law
enforcement — most notably the Tulia scandal, which began when Bush was the
governor of Texas. A white investigator of a Byrne-funded task force
testified against dozens of black residents in Tulia, Texas, for dealing
cocaine. They were convicted, even though no drugs were presented as
evidence at trial. Later, Gov. Rick Perry pardoned most of the Tulia
convicts, and onetime defendants reached a $5 million settlement with local
Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance, which opposes the war
on drugs, believes that abuses such as the Tulia travesty occur when "the
federal government is handing money out like candy" and there is no real
Piper also argues that "the war on drugs is an area that you
could cut without political consequences." Alas, there also are no real
consequences, because Congress keeps sneaking the money back into the
budget. I would agree, except that the press releases sent out by
Byrne-loving senators suggest that there is little upside in cutting
As the National Taxpayers Union's Paul Gessing noted, "The
people who have the most at stake lobby very hard, whereas it's hard for the
average citizen to keep track of this stuff."
I fault Bush for not vetoing his first farm bill, which enabled
Congress' big spending. Now that he is trying to do the right thing, he
stands alone. If the president can't push Congress to kill a program that is
13 percent effective, then he can't cut anything, because there is no will
to spend responsibly in Washington.