How to Build A Bigger Boondoggle | Citizens Against Government Waste

How to Build A Bigger Boondoggle

The WasteWatcher

The media has settled on a politically palatable historical metaphor for the new Obama administration and it is Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Time made it official when it put a photo of Barack Obama as FDR on its cover for its November 24, 2008 issue.  And FDR’s storied New Deal policies of the late 1930’s have also become a convenient, albeit simplistic archetype for the so-called stimulus package racing through Congress. 

In a January 20, 2009 article in Newsweek, reporter Kurt Soller revisited one of FDR’s most prominent New Deal programs, the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  That program employed 8 million men and women between 1935 and 1943.  Soller describes it in somewhat sentimental tones, claiming that the true aim of the WPA was not to create lasting monuments, though it did do that when it financed the Triborough Bridge in New York City, but that “local priorities” also were funded.  In Washington, D.C., for example, “more than 100 men were paid to scare off pigeons.  In Brooklyn, men and women worked as fire hydrant decorators.  And in Boston, the government sponsored a project to make fish chowder….In fact, the term ‘boondoggle,’ meaning any job or activity that is wasteful or trivial, was inspired by just these sorts of WPA projects.  The best example from the FDR years?  Government-funded research on the production and efficiency of safety pins.”

Fire hydrant decoration?  Child’s play.  Wait until taxpayers see what is coming this time around.  While specific projects related to the stimulus package’s $600 billion in new spending have yet to be divulged, the media will predictably focus on some of the absurd smaller-ticket shenanigans, such as the $246 million tax credit for investors in big-budget Hollywood movies.  Golf courses, casinos, aquariums, zoos, and swimming pools are theoretically prohibited, but tennis courts, skateboard parks, bike paths, museums, and theatres are still eligible.  And there will plenty of those.  But make sure not to miss the more dangerous, big-ticket projects that are also going to end up getting some of the loot.    

For example, the city of Chicago has wanted to move forward with the O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP), which would expand one of the nation’s busiest airports.  O’Hare had 1 million annual take-offs and landings in the 1990s.  But as a result of September 11, higher fuel costs, severe contraction in the airline industry and the current economic downturn, annual take-offs and landings there have slid every year since 2004, to 881,566 arrivals and departures in 2008, its lowest level in 15 years, according to Federal Aviation Administration.  In addition, the City of Chicago is $450 million in the red and considering tax hikes on everything that moves.  Yet, in characteristic fashion, Mayor Richard Daley isn’t going to let those realities deter him from pushing a big public works program guaranteed to allow him to allocate juicy construction contracts. 

The OMP calls for new runways, a new western terminal, and off-airport infrastructure projects including an expressway extension and a bypass road, all by 2014.  The estimated price tag for the plan starts at $20 billion.  It has been plagued by controversy and mired in legal challenges.  Even the large airlines that fly through O’Hare are balking at coughing up their portion of the funding for the project.  However, with quite a few Illinois transplants occupying powerful positions in both the White House and the Transportation Department and the stimulus bill on the fastest track possible, this monstrous boondoggle could easily get pushed to the front of the line of projects eligible for funding through the Airport Improvement Program. 

For far too long, federal funds have been diverted from rationally and competitively- funded critical national needs and, predominantly through congressional earmarking, used instead for ridiculous projects that would not have passed the smell test had they been put before state and local taxpayers.  While the Bridge to Nowhere was bad enough, this reckless, hastily-concocted spending package will be a repository for boondoggles large and small, saddling taxpayers with tens of billions in “toxic assets,” like the OMP, for decades to come. 

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