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Commentary: Trick or Treating Taxpayers

October 28, 2016
Weekly Wastebasket Volume: XXI No. 43

As Halloween approaches, it’s a good time to highlight some of the tricks that have been played on taxpayers recently, as well as a few treats. For the faint of fiscal heart, be aware that some of these are a bit scary.

TRICK |  The Pentagon is using a gimmick to evade the caps on federal spending that nearly every other federal department must meet. Only the Pentagon and the State Department can pad their budgets with so-called Overseas Contingency Operations(OCO) funding. Instead of working within a budget of roughly $524 billion in Fiscal Year 2017, the Pentagon also gets almost $59 billion in OCO money. Add to that recent revelations that about half of that money, $30 billion, is actually for “enduring missions” (in other words, not contingencies) and you understand why we consider this slush fund one of the worst tricks being played on the American taxpayer.

TRICK | In a trick that would make David Copperfield jealous, the United States Air Force has a multi-billion dollar acquisition hidden up its sleeve. For some reason, inexplicable to us, the service refuses to publicly reveal the value of its contract with Northrop Grumman to produce the new B-21 bomber. Although much is known about this new aircraft, the Air Force argues that letting taxpayers know the final price tag would be giving away too much information to our enemies. We think this is more about avoiding the inevitable stories about yet another Air Force program running over its budget estimates. After all, if officials don’t tell us how much they think it will cost, we’ll never know when it overruns its budget. We think this is preposterous and recently gave the Air Force our “Golden Fleece” for its secrecy about the program.

TRICK | Just two years after its passage, the 2014 farm bill continues to haunt taxpayers. Touted by Agriculture Committee leaders in Congress as a deficit reducing treat for taxpayers, new income entitlement programs for agricultural businesses are exploding in costs. Turns out the newly created ARC and PLC programs are on pace to be $15 billion more costly than projected and actually even more expensive than if we’d just continued mailing checks to farmers because they owned land.

TRICK | Taxpayers had a treat, but the Senate is stealing the candy and not giving taxpayers a choice in flood insurance. In the spring, the House passed the Flood Insurance Market Parity and Modernization Act with unanimous 419-0 vote. This bill would level the playing field for private flood insurers by clarifying that private policies can be used to meet flood insurance purchase requirements. Considering motherhood and apple pie probably wouldn’t get a unanimous vote in the House these days, it’s shocking the Senate hasn’t taken up this common sense legislation.

TRICK | The federal government is once again operating on a continuing resolution. While it might be a treat that there wasn’t a shutdown, the truth is Congress didn’t even try to get its work done on time. Most of the dozen spending bills didn’t get to the floor in either chamber and, with the exception of the bill that funds military construction and veterans affairs, the House last voted on a spending bill in mid-July and the Senate in late May!

While they are so common sense it feels more like getting a pencil or a toothbrush instead of candy, taxpayers at least got a couple of treats:

TREAT | The Bureau of Land Management is reportedly close to releasing final rules to curtail the waste of methane gas from oil and gas operations on federal lands. The existing rules were adopted during the Nixon Administration, long before new technologies like hydraulic fracturing even existed. These new rules are important to taxpayers because the gas being lost during the scramble to drill in new shale deposits in the Wild, Wild West has meant huge losses of natural gas – worth about $40 million per year in royalties.

TREAT | The Department of Interior has launched a comprehensive review of its federal coal program, the source of much criticism by the Government Accountability Office, the Inspector General, and TCS. Our biggest beef with the program is that taxpayers have been getting TRICKED because the program doesn’t foster competition for federal coal leases. Without competition, federal lands rich in coal are sold piece-by-piece for below market value.

Have a happy Halloween! We will be working to ensure that Congress’s actions in the lame-duck, post-election session don’t include any more tricks on taxpayers. You can bet there will be an Omnibus spending bill, always a treat for special interests that costs taxpayers a bundle.