A Little Wanton Money

A little wanton money, which burned out the bottom of his purse.

Sir Thomas More, Works [c. 1535]

Five hundred million dollars seems like a lot until one realizes that it’s only a small part of an approximately $3.6 trillion dollar budget and viewed in that light it’s hardly worth mentioning except in a column such as this. It is also a testimonial to the endurance of earmarks.

One of the many things Republicans decided should wait until the new Congress took charge in 2011 was the adoption of a budget to run the country. The old budget died officially on September 30, 2010, but unlike run of the mill dead things, a continuing resolution gave it life until it would be replaced by a new budget no later than March 4, 2011 or Republicans in Congress decide that the federal government doesn’t need to be funded and permit it to shut down. That happened when Bill Clinton was president and the result was a Democratic take over of the House of Representatives the next time the voters were given the opportunity to express their opinions about the government shut down.

Republicans may be dumb but some of them, at least, are not stupid. (They demonstrated that by reading the U.S. Constitution aloud on the floor of the House the day after being sworn in, thus showing a skeptical public that at least they know how to read. Whether they can govern is placed in doubt given the folly of this undertaking.)

The passage of the short-term budget resolution funds the federal government at fiscal year 2010 levels. As the New York Times reported, there are lots of consequences of simply coming up with a short term fix.” Two examples make the point. John Nester, a spokesman for the Securities and Exchange Commission said the commission is forced to cut back enforcement and market oversight. The IRS’s efforts to update its computer system will be further delayed. (For more than 13 years the IRS has been trying to update its computer system. In January 2010 it announced that instead of completing the task by 2012 as had previously been promised, the update would not be completed until somewhere between 2018 and 2028. It now says its efforts will be once again delayed.)

Not all the consequences of the failure to agree on a new budget are bad. For one thing, the Republicans are now firmly in control of the House and by March 4 the brighter of the new members will have figured out how to be Congress people and will be able to make better budget decisions that they think people want than the former Congress would have made. In addition to giving the new Congress the right to set priorities, another beneficiary of the delay is Alliant Techsystems (ATK). It will receive $165 million that it would not have received had a new budget been adopted.

In 2009 President Obama cancelled the Constellation moon program. Part of the program included funds for the development of a first stage solid fuel rocket for the Ares I rocket. Since the Constellation has been cancelled that rocket will not be built. The Orlando Sentinel says the technology on which work is now continuing will probably never be utilized. The $165 million that ATK is receiving is part of the $500 million that the failure to adopt the new budget is costing NASA. The reason for the continuing expenditure is found in 70 words in the 2010 budget that was adopted by Congress. According to the Los Angeles Times those words were inserted into that budget by a champion ear-marker, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R. Ala.) to protect work on the rocket being done at Marshall Space flight Center in Alabama. They say that NASA cannot shut down the Ares project until a budget for 2011 is adopted. According to the Times, NASA says that it has “been spending an average of $95 million a month on Ares I.” (Senator Shelby who has been responsible for the continued funding of the moribund program, has been a prodigious ear-marker throughout his Senate career. In 2008 he secured $427 million in earmarks for Alabama and in 20009 he obtained $322 million. At the end of November 2010 when the Senate held a vote to impose an earmark ban on the entire senate for two years, Senator Shelby was among those who successfully blocked the imposition of such a ban, thus insuring that earmarking would continue, at least until the new Congress convened.)

As noted at the outset, $500 milliOn wasted is a drop in the bucket in the overall scheme of things and will be more than made up for by the $100 billion Republicans promise to cut from the budget as soon as they get around to figuring out where the cuts will come from.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.


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