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“Big-Government Contagion”

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A rough calculation suggests the single biggest recipient of taxpayer dollars in this legislation—far in excess of $600 billion—is government itself. This legislation may prove the biggest one-day expansion of government power ever.”

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Big-Government Contagion

Appropriators throw hundreds of billions at the virus—and at everything else.

By Kimberley A. Strassel, Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2020:

Potomac Watch: Appropriators throw hundreds of billions of dollars at the virus—and at everything else.

The Senate did something good Wednesday night, passing a bill to inject liquidity into a virus-ravaged economy. It also did something dangerous, requiring the public to be on guard.

Members of Congress are pointing out the many parts of society aided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, styled the Cares Act. Checks for American families. Some $377 billion for small business. Help for air carriers and other industries. Money for hospitals.

Missing from their list is an important category, which underlines an inescapable fact: Government mostly “Cares” for government. Bills that hand out money are written by appropriators. And appropriators never miss an opportunity to expand departments, agencies, bureaus and commissions. A rough calculation suggests the single biggest recipient of taxpayer dollars in this legislation—far in excess of $600 billion—is government itself. This legislation may prove the biggest one-day expansion of government power ever.

Some of this money is required. Washington and the states are devoting significant resources to the virus response, and the bill earmarks funds for many specific and warranted purposes. A great deal of cash is going to frontline agencies—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services. The bill sends money to the Bureau of Prisons, to help control the virus’s spread among inmates; to the IRS for an extended tax-filing season; to the Transportation Security Administration “for cleaning and sanitization at checkpoints.” Are the amounts a bit excessive? No doubt. But let’s not quibble.

More concerning is the extent to which Democrats used the bill to tighten every fiber of the social safety net. Put aside the $260 billion for unemployment benefits, potentially necessary in light of record jobless claims. The bill throws $25 billion more at food stamps and child nutrition; $12 billion at housing; $3.5 billion to states for child care; $32 billion at education; $900 million at low-income heating assistance; $50 million at legal services for the poor and so on. This is a massive expansion of the welfare state, seemingly with no regard to the actual length of this crisis.

There’s also the money appropriators threw at government for no purpose other than the throwing. Every outpost gets dollars, most for nothing more than the general command “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” NASA gets $60 million. Has the virus infected the sun’s corona? The National Archives gets $8 million. Will it put the virus on display? Many departments get cash for research, regardless of their relevance to today’s medical crisis. Perhaps the Energy Department will use its additional $99 million in “science” to gauge how the virus responds in a nuclear reactor.

Then there’s the outright pork. The Forest Service gets $3 million for “forest and rangeland research,” $27 million for “capital improvement and maintenance,” and $7 million for wildfire management. The bill shovels $75 million to the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, $25 million to the Kennedy Center, an odd $78,000 “payment” to the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development. A water project in central Utah gets $500,000. Appropriators can sneak a lot into 880 pages.

The bill sends $150 billion to state governments, on top of the dollars for unemployment, health care and education. Some of this money will be used to backstop local governments struggling with virus response, or with the economic consequences of the shutdown. But for all the Democratic demands of oversight on the bill’s business loans, the state dollars have no real strings attached. Should a locality choose to use its dollars to create new nonsensical business regulations, so be it.

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