Jewish World Review Sept. 16, 2003 / 19 Elul, 5763

Mona Charen

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At the trough

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"A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend upon the support of Paul." — George Bernard Shaw

To hear the Democrats and many members of the Fourth Estate tell it, the tax cuts signed by President Bush have proven to be utterly irresponsible in light of the expenses associated with rebuilding Iraq.

It's amazing, isn't it, that Democrats never worry about federal spending unless it is for defense. And when you politely mention that the federal budget is a giant sinkhole of waste, they ignore you completely and come up with seven new programs that need "full funding" in order for life to be decent in America.

The president has asked for $87 billion to rebuild and solidify Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a lot of money. But the federal government spends $65 billion annually on student loans to college students — enduring about a 40 percent default rate. We spend billions on hot lunches and breakfasts for schoolchildren, though the greatest health threat to the poor in America these days is not hunger but obesity.

Besides, why can't poor children take their lunches to school in a brown bag, as my kids do? How much does a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple and a yogurt cost? Maybe $1.50. For a family receiving food stamps, it's even less. So why subsidize the lunches for children whose families already receive food aid in the form of food stamps?

The answer is: A) the program makes its advocates feel virtuous, and B) the social workers who designed the program fear that poor parents are too incompetent to pack a proper lunch or serve a decent breakfast.

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This may be true of a tiny number of poor parents. But should the sensible response be to provide intensive services to those families instead of saddling the whole country with an immensely wasteful and expensive program that isn't needed and primarily benefits farmers, who are not poor to begin with?

When it comes to spending, alas, the Republicans are hardly Eagle Scouts, either. The ideal of smaller government is in eclipse at the moment. The terror attacks have been seized as an opportunity to lard on new spending for favored constituencies. Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that the federal government will spend $22.5 billion on 9, 362 pork barrel projects in 2003.

Your tax dollars will support $732,000 for the Center for Designing Foods in Ames, Iowa; $560,000 for the Sheep Institute in Bozeman, Mont.; $202,500 for a new arena at the National Peanut Festival Fairgrounds in Dothan, Ala.; and $90,000 for the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. Our legislators also saw fit to spend $900,000 for the renovation of the Plaza Theater in El Paso, Texas; $405,000 on the Soccer League in Staten Island, N.Y.; $180,000 to the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine (after the French tried their best to eviscerate us at the United Nations?); and $500,000 for catfish health in Stoneville, Miss.

And from the Department of Redundancy Department, the Heritage Foundation reports that there are 342 different economic development programs in the federal budget, along with 130 programs serving the disabled, 130 programs for at-risk youth, 90 early childhood development programs, 75 programs funding international education, cultural and trade exchanges, 50 homeless assistance programs, 40 separate employment and training programs, 23 agencies providing aid to the former Soviet republics, 19 programs fighting substance abuse, 12 food safety agencies, 11 principal statistics agencies, four overlapping land management agencies, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, reportedly quipped that "nobody ever washed a rented car." As you would expect, the federal agencies handling our money do not treat it with the kind of care they would their own. The Department of Agriculture seems to have lost track of $5 billion in receipts and expenditures. Of 26 departments and major government agencies, 21 received the lowest possible rating for their financial management. The Justice Department has lost 400 laptop computers and 775 weapons due to poor record keeping and inventory control. And to top it all off, the federal government as a whole cannot account for $17.1 billion dollars spent in 2002.

If each agency and department had cut its spending by just 1 percent in 1980, the Heritage Foundation estimates that taxpayers would have saved $190 billion through 2002 — or about half of our current deficit.

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Comment on JWR contributor Mona Charen's column by clicking here. Purchase her just published book, "Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First," by clicking here. (Sales help fund JWR.)

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