By DAN BENSON
Longtime Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen supposedly said, famously, “A billion here, a billion there; pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
That quote is often cited as one of the most precise characterizations of how Washington politicians and bureaucrats look at government spending. The sums are so great that they become meaningless. Approve a multibillion-dollar plan to throw at that moment’s direst issue, and who cares if a couple million go to hire a few more staple-pounders and stamp-lickers. Or, as sometimes happens, some low-to-mid-level bureaucrat siphons off a few thousand — or ten or hundred thousand — into his own pocket or that of a crony. The high-altitude watchdogs will hardly notice what the worker-ants are doing.
Even at the local level, one only has to attend a few school, county or village board meetings to realize that the length of debate is often inverse to the amount of money being spent, especially if the money is in the form of “free” federal grants. Millions of dollars for a building or highway project can be approved with nary a discouraging word. But propose spending $2,000 to replace a parks department lawn mower and debate may rage for hours before being tabled.
The mind boggles at dollar amounts beyond our meager checking accounts or retirement plans. But why, the conscientious alderman may ask, spend so much for bathroom tissue at city hall when he knows he can get it cheaper at Costco?
One was reminded of this while reading the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’s investigation of fraud and waste in federal grants awarded to the St. Croix Chippewa band of Indians in northwest Wisconsin. WPRI reporter Dave Daley’s story — part of WPRI’s “Federal Grant$tanding” project — detailed how Chippewa leaders have annually misused hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal housing funds while many tribal members continue to live in poverty.
In a sidebar to that story, Daley cites misspending of millions of dollars by tribes across the country. Even in HUD’s Office of Native American Programs, which is charged with overseeing tribes’ management of grants, administrator Brian Thompson pleaded guilty in 2014 to skimming nearly $850,000 from the sale of HUD-owned properties.
“Thompson’s lawyer minimized the crimes,” Daley wrote, “arguing that Thompson did not steal from ‘innocent people — he stole from the United States government’ and that the nearly $850,000 he stole was only 0.0017 percent of HUD’s nearly $50 billion in grant disbursements.”
It goes without saying that government officials and employees are by far generally honest and committed people. But one can’t help but wonder whether Thompson’s lawyer reflects a general mindset of officials in Washington, D.C., and even in Madison, who discount relatively small amounts of federal cash that represent “real” money to the rest of us. In Real Town, Wisconsin, $1,000 can mean the difference between having a decent place to live on an Indian reservation, getting a prescription filled at Wal-Mart or being able to supply a tablet computer to a couple Milwaukee middle-school students.
The problem is, the most-favored solution to fraud, waste and abuse by politicians, bureaucrats and advocates (all of whom owe their livings to the continued flow of grant money) is to hold a hearing, launch another program with more bureaucracy or just up the ante and spend more than before.
The questions we should be asking, however, are: Why aren’t our problems getting better? What value does the Washington bureaucracy add? Could problems be addressed more effectively and at less expense if we kept the money here where local people have more control instead of sending it to Washington and then getting it back minus the cost of the bureaucracy? When it comes back, it’s usually with strings attached on how we’re allowed to spend it, how much in “matching funds” we must commit and how long a “maintenance of effort” commitment we have. Due to those strings, at least one study showed that “free” federal money usually increases local and state spending.
Perhaps if we left the money in Wisconsin we might save a billion here or a billion there. Eventually, we’d be talking about real money perhaps solving real problems deemed most important by Wisconsin taxpayers.
Dan Benson is editor of WPRI's Project for 21st Century Federalism, of which “Federal Grant$tanding” is a part (wpri.org). Benson is a former reporter and editor with the Milwaukee Sentinel, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Gannett Wisconsin.