Why Dieting is Hard for Uncle Sam

Whether devout or passionate, “severe” conservatives (as republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney styled himself), assert a belief that the private sector should command all economic activity, while the public sector is reduced to as close to nothing as possible.  Here is Mr. Romney on his rival Rick Santorum: “Sen. Santorum is a nice guy, but he’s never had a job in the private sector.”

The federal government has been the target of conservative politicians since before the public sector’s rapid growth after World War II. The wonder is that after six post-war republican presidents, four of whom were reelected for a second term, the campaign against government has been so unsuccessful that republican candidates today still invoke it as proof of their ideological identity and resolve.

But we should not wonder: There is no more reality behind the rhetorical campaign against the public sector than there is behind one campaign enthusiast’s warning that “the government had better keep its hands off of my Medicare.”  Were it not for the federal government, numerous companies, forced to depend on the private sector’s ‘free market,’ would become mere shadows of their former selves.

Since the 1960s federal policy–supported by both parties–has required all federal agencies to procure their necessary goods and services from the private sector.  The result has been an “iron triangle:” The flow of federal procurement dollars from (a) executive branch agencies through contracts and grants to (b) private sector firms and organizations is protected by (c) members of congress, whose bill writing chores are alleviated by corporate lobbyists–many of whom were once members of congress themselves.  To observe the iron triangle at work, spend a few evenings with the on-line Federal Procurement Data System (https://www.fpds.gov) and OpenSecrets.org, which tracks money in politics.

Nine state congressional delegations sent more than two members to join the newly formed Tea Party Caucus in 2010: California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.  If these states’ delegations were able to satisfy their Tea Party constituents by dramatically shrinking the federal government, what would happen?  All of them would probably come to regret it, because their constituents typically receive more dollars from the federal government than they pay to it in federal taxes.

In 2009 all of these states received at least than 20% more than they paid Uncle Sam in taxes the following year. South Carolina received the most, or169% more. Of all the Tea Party states Texas, for all its patriotism, received the smallest percentage of federal dollars in 2009 in excess of what it paid in 2010 (20%).

What was all that money spent on?  The largest amount of federal funds distributed among the states consisted of procurements and grants.  Federal contracts and grants in 2009 amounted to $1.3 trillion pumped back into the private sector.

Among the Tea Party caucus states, California’s private sector benefited from over $64 billion in contracts. Texas received slightly over half that much in federal contracts ($35 billion), while $17.5 billion went to Florida.  Missouri and Tennessee received more than $10 billion each.  The private sector in the remaining Tea Party caucus states (South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and Kansas)  received between $8 billion and $2.5 billion in federal contracts each.  (Maine received $1.4 billion in 2009.)

When members of congress play by the rules laid out in the Pendleton Act (1883) and the Procurement Integrity Act (1988), they do not lobby for individual businesses.  But there is another way they can ensure that public sector dollars help support the private sector at home: Maintain or increase appropriations to those federal programs that award contracts to their constituents’ businesses.

So, vote to shrink the federal government if that makes you feel good.  But once our victorious candidates learn how and where our tax dollars get spent, their energies wander to other urgent national concerns, returning to the size of government only when the TV cameras reappear.

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