Rep. Jackie Walorski was illusive and not forthright

(The two previous articles, “The decline of local news is threatening citizen engagement” and “Pravda on the Plains: Indiana’s New Propaganda Machine” pointed out that elected officials increasingly are wanting to control the message and the way it is transmitted. This is even more true among incumbents. Any candidate for office including incumbents should be willing to commit to periodic town hall meetings with questions from their constituents, not just from reporters. – Russ Phillips)

At the Wabash, IN debate October 21, 2014 between Joe Bock and Rep. Walorski (Indiana 2nd congressional district) the following was asked of both candidates: “In your campaigns both of you have mentioned ‘Social Security’ and ‘Medicare.’ What needs to occur, if anything, regarding these programs for both current and future recipients of these benefits?” Questions had to be submitted in writing in advance. 

Bock was agreeable to responding, however, Walorski was not. As a result, according to the debate rules, the question was not asked since it was required that both give the “okay” for questions from the audience. 

Unfortunately the debate was cut short about 20 minutes from its intended length due to only six audience questions receiving the “okay.” Following the debate both campaigns were asked how many questions were submitted by the audience. Walorski’s did not respond. Bock’s was reluctant to respond because an exact count was not kept although eventually said, “probably 50 or so.” 

Four years ago Walorski supported privatizing Social Security and referred to it, Medicare and Medicaid as going “bankrupt.” During her most recent campaign she commented, “Social Security is a sacred commitment we’ve made to our seniors” and “I’ll oppose any cuts in Social Security or Medicare.” Where does Walorski stand? 

Social Security and Medicare are not only an interest of current recipients but also of all who currently are making contributions from their paychecks. 

– Russ Phillips

The decline of local news is threatening citizen engagement

The Washington Post
By Danny Hayes
1/23/15

When the White House announced last week that President Obama would grant interviews to three YouTube stars after Tuesday’s State of the Union address, it not only marked the first time “fartbag” made its way into media coverage of the august annual speech. It also served as yet another reminder of how the evolving media environment is reshaping Washington politics.

As important as these changes might be, it’s easy to forget that perhaps an even more politically consequential shift in the media landscape is happening at the local level. New research by me and American University political science professor Jennifer Lawless suggests that the impoverishment of local political news in recent years is driving down citizen engagement.

Lawless and I aren’t the first to explore a link between the changing local news environment and political engagement. Previous work has shown that the recent deaths of newspapers in big cities — such as Cincinnati, Denver and Seattle — have coincided with lower levels of civic participation. With fewer outlets providing public affairs information, voters appear less politically active.

But our analysis, based on a large-scale study of local coverage and citizen behavior in every congressional district across the country, demonstrates that the fading of two-newspaper towns is not the only problem. When the content of local news deteriorates — as has happened nationwide in an era of newsroom austerity — so do citizen knowledge and participation.

The core of our study is an analysis of local newspaper coverage during the 2010 midterm elections. We identified the largest-circulating newspaper within each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts and conducted an in-depth content analysis of U.S. House campaign coverage in the month leading up to the election (Oct. 2 through Nov. 2, 2010). We focused our attention on newspaper coverage because this is virtually the only venue where House races receive meaningful attention.

Based on our analysis of more than 6,000 news stories, we first demonstrate that the volume and substance of coverage is affected by the competitiveness of a House race and the size of a newspaper covering it. Competitive races get more coverage, and more issue-focused coverage, than landslide contests. For instance, toss-up races received almost one story per day on average, nearly three times as many as safe districts. And large newspapers are less likely than smaller outlets to devote attention to any single congressional election in their market.

Duh, you say. Though certainly unsurprising, these results help trace the pathway by which the political and economic environment can shape the content of information citizens have at their disposal. With a dwindling number of competitive House contests, there are shrinking incentives for news organizations to offer more than perfunctory coverage. And as smaller papers have folded, making larger newspapers the lone sources of local news in many communities, local political coverage is getting harder to find.

When we merge our newspaper data with survey data from the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we find that voters in districts with less news coverage know less about the candidates running for the House. For instance, as the volume of news coverage declines, citizens are less able to identify candidates as liberals or conservatives. They are also less likely to say that they will cast a ballot in the House contest.

To be sure, the effects are not enormous. But even accounting for campaign spending, individuals’ education levels and partisanship, and other key variables, local news contributes to citizens’ ability — or lack thereof — to form judgments about politicians. For example, a decline of two standard deviations in the number of news stories in a district (about 26) reduces by about two points the likelihood of a respondent being able to identify a candidate’s ideology.

We find that this is true not only for the least politically engaged voters but also those who are typically more attentive to politics. Where the news environment is impoverished, engagement is diminished for all citizens.

That differs from the pattern that political scientist Markus Prior documents at the national level, where the vast expansion of news and entertainment options has widened the gap in political involvement between the most and least politically interested citizens. Prior shows that just as cable TV and the Internet allow political junkies to become ever more informed, they also allow citizens who don’t care about politics to turn instead to SportsCenter, the newest “Real Housewives” franchise or cat videos. (Don’t get me wrong: This is undeniably awesome.) As a consequence, the information-rich get richer, and the information-poor get poorer.

Why do we find more uniform effects? We suspect it is because mainstream news outlets still constitute the dominant source of information for local politics. Few hyperlocal news sites and other online outlets have gained traction and become reliable sources for political news. This leaves even politically engaged citizens with few alternatives for information about House candidates when news coverage in their local paper falls away.

This development has potentially profound implications. To the extent that a knowledgeable and participatory citizenry is a marker of a healthy political system, the demise of local news should raise concerns about the operation of electoral democracy. An anemic news environment makes it more difficult for citizens to hold their local representatives accountable.

And that may be far more consequential than whether the president gives an interview to the “Queen of YouTube.”

(Danny Hayes is associate professor of political science at George Washington University. His research focuses on political communication and political behavior. He is the co-author of Influence from Abroad, a book about Americans’ views toward U.S. foreign policy.)

Pravda on the Plains: Indiana’s New Propaganda Machine

(On 1/29/15 IndyStar.com reported, “Gov. Mike Pence killed his administration’s plans for a state-run news service Thursday…”)

Pravda on the Plains: Indiana’s New Propaganda Machine
From the White House to the Midwest, American politicians are creating—and favoring—state-sponsored media in lieu of the free press.

The Atlantic
David A. Graham
1/27/15

Sometimes you can’t believe what you read in the press. Can you imagine, for example, that a Republican governor with a reputation as a small-government conservative would try to launch a government-run news service to disseminate information under the guise of journalism? Oh … wait:

Gov. Mike Pence is starting a state-run taxpayer-funded news outlet that will make pre-written news stories available to Indiana media, as well as sometimes break news about his administration, according to documents obtained by The Indianapolis Star.

The actual scope of the project, “Just IN,” remains unclear. On the one hand, an internal document stated that the service will sometimes “break news” with “‘exclusive’ content.” “Just IN, however, will function as a news outlet in its own right for thousands of Hoosiers,” one document said. But a spokesman for Pence tried to downplay the move to The Indianapolis Star Monday, saying it was more like a redesign of the current state news calendar. Journalists, however, reacted peevishly.

Should politicians be in the news business? Sure, Pence needs to be able to communicate what the state is doing, but communication and reporting are different matters. It’s unclear what the cost of the project will be to taxpayers, though the Star says the combined salaries of its employees will be about $100,000. More importantly, it’s an obvious threat to the notion of a free press. State-sponsored journalism is generally the province of authoritarian states—think Pravda or Xinhua. If the government is pushing out information with newspaper-style coverage that looks like the standard press but is actually government ventriloquism, will readers be able to tell the difference?

Just IN comes at time, too, when local media companies, especially newspapers, are forced to cut back on reporting resources and struggle to produce enough news coverage to fill their pages and time. Having pre-written stories on newsy topics available might prove tempting, allowing the government to fill the vacuum. On Tuesday, Pence announced Indiana would accept an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. How might a state-produced article spin that news, as compared to an independent press?

Government propaganda presented under the guise of reporting could fool readers just as easily as Facebook hoaxes.

Whether readers can tell the difference is a signal question of the Internet age, with the destruction of traditional journalistic authority. That has had positive effects—democratization allows non-traditional voices a chance to be heard and to hold old-line press accountable. But the atomization of news, with articles spreading through social media, means it’s sometimes hard to assess an article’s accuracy: Witness the distressing spread of hoax stories on Facebook. There’s every reason to believe that government propaganda presented under the guise of reporting could fool readers just as easily. It would be even more pernicious if Indiana press outlets opted to run pre-written news stories alongside standard reportage, giving the state a chance to co-opt the free press’ authority.

None of this is to say that traditional media is without flaws—it surely is not. But the purpose of a free press is for journalists to serve as an independent check on authority, an adversarial voice questioning the government. When the media fails—from the lead-up to the Iraq War to any number of charges against the “liberal media”—it’s often from lack of independence. Clearly, centralizing the reporting function in a state agency won’t solve that problem. (Interestingly, Indiana did not offer liberal media bias as a reason for Just IN, nor did it argue that the press is too negative, as elected-officials-cum-self-appointed-media-critics often do.)

Indiana’s project would not be unprecedented. There’s a long history of partisan press in the United States; during World War I, the Committee for Public Information influenced coverage of the war effort. More recently, government bodies from Illinois to Oregon have adopted the tone of news in press releases. The federal government also runs Voice of America, an overseas news service. Tellingly, Congress long banned VOA from broadcasting in the United States, viewing it as a Soviet-style tool that had no place speaking to American citizens. Why should American taxpayers fund propaganda that would be fed right back to them? But the ban was repealed in 2013.

What Just IN most resembles is a push by successive presidential administrations of both parties to marginalize the political press corps. (Pence himself might be a member of the crowded 2016 Republican field.) The current administration has raised this to an art. President Obama holds few press conferences. When he grants interviews, it’s often to local or non-traditional media—sports journalists or entertainment journalists, for example. Meanwhile, the White House pushes more and more information out directly through its website. It favors Q&As on Reddit and Twitter, where Obama can avoid reporters. The White House says these are ways to reach new audiences, which has some truth to it, and some of the backlash is just the recrimination of a whingeing press corps. But the effect is clear: The president takes fewer questions from reporters who are experts on politics and policy than his predecessors.

This year, the White House even changed the way it distributes the text of the State of the Union. As Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer wrote in a post on Medium:

There is a ritual on State of the Union night in Washington. A little before the address, the White House sends out an embargoed copy of the President’s speech to the press (embargoed means that the press can see the speech, but they can’t report on it until a designated time). The reporters then start sending it around town to folks on Capitol Hill to get their reaction, then those people send it to all their friends, and eventually everyone in Washington can read along, but the public remains in the dark.

This year we change that.

For the first time, the White House is making the full text of the speech available to citizens around the country online.

Pfeiffer is using Medium in just the way Pence appears to wish to use Just IN: as a method of going directly to citizens and cutting out meddling reporters.

Of course I’d say this: I’m a coddled reporter trying to protect my turf. But it turns out that effective coverage of elected officials, especially outside of Washington, really is in danger. Also on Monday, political scientist Danny Hayes of George Washington University wrote in The Washington Post about new research on the press he’s done with American University’s Jennifer Lawless. Hayes and Lawless’s research offers data to confirm what one might suspect: The shrinking local press has created a less-informed electorate when it comes to congressional districts, their representatives, and locally salient issues. “As the volume of news coverage declines, citizens are less able to identify candidates as liberals or conservatives,” Hayes writes. “They are also less likely to say that they will cast a ballot in the House contest.” (This is actually counter to the national trend, where the splintered media landscape has resulted in more awareness about national politics.)

If the backlash doesn’t shake Pence and Just IN takes off, it could create a template for local and state governments to fill that void. (In a symbolic turn, the managing editor of Just IN, Bill McCleery, left the Star in November.) It’s hard to argue that such a shift would be good news, though.

Commentary: Power, money and education reform

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com
1/26/15

INDIANAPOLIS – Long ago, Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt.”

The same can be true of money.

One of the many tragedies accompanying the destructive debate over education “reform” in Indiana is the way those two corrupting forces – power and money – have come together.

The mini-drama surrounding state Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, is but the latest example. Behning, who is chair of the House Education Committee, had plans to do lobbying in other states for an educational testing company that also does business in Indiana. After The Indianapolis Star broke the story about his plans – and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, indicated he disapproved of his education committee chairman’s latest career choice – Behning did an about-face. He said he wouldn’t lobby on education issues, after all.

Behning’s pirouette produced a political brushfire. Behning’s ethical tone deafness drew most of the heat.

Lost in the smoke, though, were the nature of the temptation and how that temptation is corrupting both government and education.

As the Behning episode demonstrates, some of that corruption can occur at the personal level.

Most state lawmakers are not wealthy people. They generally are middle-class or upper middle-class citizens who make spending decisions involving billions of dollars. They also see those decisions making other people wealthier than kings.

If the lawmakers watched all that money flowing back and forth and did not wonder if they could find a way to bathe in such a river of gold, too, they would be something other than human.

This is particularly true when it comes to education spending, which is a massive part of most states’ budgets.

And that leads to a larger kind of corruption involving the discussion about education policy.

When the current education reform movement began, it started as a way to open stultified schools to innovation and improve performance through competition.

Charter schools were supposed to pilot new approaches to education that, if successful, could be applied to all public schools. Vouchers were supposed to give students – and their parents – in substandard schools a way to move to better schools.

By unleashing innovation and creating competition, student achievement would climb.

It hasn’t worked out that way. There is no definitive evidence that either charters or vouchers have improved educational outcomes, despite the massive sums spent on them.

But that hasn’t persuaded education reformers to alter course. They just have changed their arguments.

Behning has been at the forefront of this new justification for charters and vouchers. When questioned a while back in a legislative committee meeting about whether Indiana’s experiment with school choice had been effective, he brushed the question aside as irrelevant.

The goal was to empower parents, Behning said.

But, if that’s the case, why is paying for school a public, rather than a private and individual, responsibility?

If a school’s job was simply to please parents, it would make more sense just to have parents pay for their kids’ educations themselves. (Similarly, if education was just about job training, it would be more efficient to have businesses design and pay for the schools themselves.)

No, our public education system was supposed to prepare people for the responsibilities of citizenship. That’s why everyone has to pay for it, including those taxpayers who don’t have children or grandchildren, because it’s supposed to be in everyone’s interest to have well-educated citizens.

It’s because education is a public responsibility (and duty) that we can require children to attend school. We deny them – and their parents – the choice not to go to school because it isn’t in the public interest for us to have unprepared and unproductive citizens.

That’s also why, in a rational world with a true commitment to accountability, we would abandon vouchers and charters if we don’t see concrete results soon.

That will be hard to do, though, when entire industries (testing, consulting, lobbying) have been established around this new educational structure. The folks accumulating fortunes by building those industries will do anything – try to hire an education committee chair as a lobbyist, alter school grades to reward ideological biases – to preserve the system that’s making them rich or entrenching them in positions of authority, however flawed that system may be.

Money.

Power.

Lord Acton nailed it: They tend to corrupt.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

Don’t Blame Nafta

The New York Times
By Joe Nocera, Op-Ed Columnist
1/23/15

On Wednesday, the day after President Obama’s State of the Union address, a handful of Democratic House members, along with one senator, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, held a news conference to denounce one of the very few proposals the president put forward that actually has a chance of passage. The objects of their displeasure were the new trade agreements currently being negotiated by the administration.

“Since I’ve been in Congress, I’ve never seen a trade bill that in any way benefited U.S. manufacturers and workers,” said Representative Louise Slaughter, who has represented the Rochester area for 28 years. She pointed to Kodak as an example of a company harmed by trade accords, especially the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta. Since the deal between the U.S., Canada and Mexico went into effect in 1994, Kodak’s Rochester work force has shrunk to 2,300 from 39,300.

“We are fighting for the future of middle-class families,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. “These trade deals make it much easier for corporations to send American jobs overseas.” Over the past 20 years, Connecticut has lost more than 96,000 manufacturing jobs, she said, because of agreements that failed to protect American workers.

Sanders told the assembled media that while he liked the president’s speech, “he was wrong on one major issue, and that is the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” He added, “I do not believe that continuing a set of bad policies, policies that have failed, makes any sense at all.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a trade agreement currently being negotiated between 12 countries, including Japan, Canada, Vietnam, Mexico, Australia and Peru; the countries involved in the negotiations represent nearly 40 percent of global gross domestic product. It is as complex as it is ambitious.

Yet, while the Republican leadership has vowed to work with President Obama on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (as well as on another deal being negotiated with the European Union), the Democrats have been vocal in their opposition. In the short term, they don’t want to give the president so-called fast-track authority, which would allow the administration to negotiate the deal and then hand Congress a finalized agreement that it could only vote up or down, with no amendments. (Fast-track procedures have been used to conclude 14 trade agreements since 1974.)

You’d need a heart of stone not to be sympathetic to the concerns of the Democrats. Over the last two decades, lots of manufacturing jobs have vanished in the United States, inflicting a great deal of pain on workers. During those same 20 years, Nafta has been in force. Linking those job losses to the existence of Nafta is a leap the Democrats — and progressives in general — have made.

The question that needs to be asked, however, is whether that link is justified. “I am skeptical of definitive judgments on Nafta,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We started offshoring television assembly in the 1960s” — decades before Nafta. Yes, many assembly plants have been built in Mexico since Nafta went into effect. But China, where millions more manufacturing jobs have migrated — and with which we have a huge trade deficit — doesn’t even have a trade agreement with the United States.

Edward Gresser, the executive director of Progressive Economy, a left-leaning think tank, noted that other factors were taking place at the same time as Nafta: the growth of container ships, the lowering cost of communications, the rise of global industries. With or without trade deals, globalization is an unstoppable force. What Nafta really is, Gresser told me, is a proxy for globalization.

One mistake the Nafta negotiators made more than two decades ago was taking worker rights and environmental protections out of the agreement itself and putting them into a side letter. They were never effectively enforced. Those negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership expect to rectify that error this go-round. They are also aiming to pry open the Japanese auto and agricultural markets to American producers, and include protections for a free and open Internet. It has, in other words, a lot more potential to do good than harm.

When I spoke to Slaughter on Thursday afternoon, she was still riled up. “These crazy trade agreements,” she called them at one point. She added, “Rochester really suffered.”

She told me about all the jobs lost at Kodak. “I think Nafta brought down Kodak,” she said. But of course it didn’t. Kodak’s problems came about because digital photography made film unnecessary and Kodak didn’t shift course in time. She was blaming Nafta for Kodak’s self-inflicted wounds.

But then her tone brightened. She told me about all the new companies — 55 in all, she said — that had taken space in the old Kodak buildings. Some were even run by former Kodak engineers.

Which, of course, is precisely the way globalization is supposed to work.

(The United States is also in negotiations of a regional, Asia-Pacific trade agreement, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) with the European Union, with the objective of shaping high-standard, broad-based regional pacts. – Admin.)

George Will: The harm incurred by a mushrooming welfare state

Opinion writer
1/21/15

America’s national character will have to be changed if progressives are going to implement their agenda. So, changing social norms is the progressive agenda. To understand how far this has advanced, and how difficult it will be to reverse the inculcation of dependency, consider the data Nicholas Eberstadt deploys in National Affairs quarterly:

America’s welfare state transfers more than 14 percent of gross domestic product to recipients, with more than a third of Americans taking “need-based” payments. In our wealthy society, the government officially treats an unprecedented portion of the population as “needy.”

Transfers of benefits to individuals through social welfare programs have increased from less than 1 federal dollar in 4 (24 percent) in 1963 to almost 3 out of 5 (59 percent) in 2013. In that half-century, entitlement payments were, Eberstadt says, America’s “fastest growing source of personal income,” growing twice as fast as all other real per capita personal income. It is probable that this year a majority of Americans will seek and receive payments.

This is not primarily because of Social Security and Medicare transfers to an aging population. Rather, the growth is overwhelmingly in means-tested entitlements. More than twice as many households receive “anti-poverty” benefits than receive Social Security or Medicare. Between 1983 and 2012, the population increased by almost 83 million — and people accepting means-tested benefits increased by 67 million. So, for every 100-person increase in the population there was an 80-person increase in the recipients of means-tested payments. Food stamp recipients increased from 19 million to 51 million — more than the combined populations of 24 states.

What has changed? Not the portion of the estimated population below the poverty line (15.2 percent in 1983; 15 percent in 2012). Rather, poverty programs have become untethered from the official designation of poverty: In 2012, more than half the recipients were not classified as poor but accepted being treated as needy. Expanding dependency requires erasing Americans’ traditional distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. This distinction was rooted in this nation’s exceptional sense that poverty is not the unalterable accident of birth and is related to traditions of generosity arising from immigrant and settler experiences. 

Eberstadt’s essay, “American Exceptionalism and the Entitlement State,” argues that this state is extinguishing the former. America “arrived late to the 20th century’s entitlement party.” The welfare state’s European pedigree traces from post-1945 Britain, back through Sweden’s interwar “social democracy,” to Bismarck’s late-19th-century social insurance. European welfare states reflected European beliefs about poverty: Rigid class structures rooted in a feudal past meant meager opportunities for upward mobility based on merit. People were thought to be stuck in neediness through no fault of their own, and welfare states would reconcile people to intractable social structures.

Eberstadt notes that the structure of U.S. government spending “has been completely overturned within living memory,” resulting in the “remolding of daily life for ordinary Americans under the shadow of the entitlement state.” In two generations, the American family budget has been recast: In 1963, entitlement transfers were less than $1 out of every $15; by 2012, they were more than $1 out of every $6.

Causation works both ways between the rapid increase in family disintegration (from 1964 to 2012, the percentage of children born to unmarried women increased from 7 to 41) and the fact that, Eberstadt says, for many women, children and even working-age men, “the entitlement state is now the breadwinner of the household.” In the past 50 years, the fraction of civilian men ages 25 to 34 who were neither working nor looking for work approximately quadrupled.

Eberstadt believes that the entitlement state poses “character challenges” because it powerfully promotes certain habits, including habits of mind. These include corruption. Since 1970, Americans have become healthier, work has become less physically stressful, the workplace has become safer — and claims from Social Security Disability Insurance have increased almost sixfold. Such claims (including fraudulent ones) are gateways to a plethora of other payments.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a lifelong New Deal liberal and accomplished social scientist, warned that “the issue of welfare is not what it costs those who provide it but what it costs those who receive it.” As a growing portion of the population succumbs to the entitlement state’s ever-expanding menu of temptations, the costs, Eberstadt concludes, include a transformation of the nation’s “political culture, sensibilities, and tradition,” the weakening of America’s distinctive “conceptions of self-reliance, personal responsibility, and self-advancement,” and perhaps a “rending of the national fabric.” As a result, “America today does not look exceptional at all.”

Read more from George F. Will’s archive or follow him on Facebook.

Federal Grant Programs for States Are on the Chopping Block

Government Executive
By Timothy B. Clark
January 12, 2015

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, joined by other House Republican leaders, speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill earlier this month.House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, joined by other House Republican leaders, speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill earlier this month. J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo


WASHINGTON — With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, one might expect a serious assault on federal spending and deficits, most likely focusing on domestic discretionary programs that prop up the budgets of state and local governments.

If it comes, the attack will be directed at budgets starting in federal fiscal year 2016, which begins next Oct. 1. Most of the budget for fiscal 2015 was settled in the so-called cromnibus legislation enacted in December.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate have pledged a return to “regular order” in budget deliberations, which would be a welcome departure from recent years’ reliance on belated omnibus funding bills, huge and incomprehensible as they are. Regular order would entail adoption of a budget resolution this spring, followed by passage of the 13 functional appropriations bills that have become endangered species in the omnibus jungle.

No specific course of action has yet been unveiled by Republican leaders in Congress. But a longtime tenet of GOP philosophy has been that government is spending and borrowing to excess. Republicans have focused mainly on domestic spending. Some have advocated cuts in entitlement programs such as food stamps, while others have voiced concern about the growth of grant programs now numbering more than 1,100—each with conditions imposed on recipients at the state and local levels.

Grant programs are increasingly in the spotlight. Federal spending data newly gathered and dissected by two nonprofits have served to emphasize how heavily states and localities have come to depend on federal subventions. And Republican intellectuals have been building a case against the grant programs, characterizing them as poisoned carrots, distorting local priorities while imposing one-size-fits-all matching and regulatory conditions.

At the same time, state, county and municipal budgets haven’t fully recovered from the Great Recession, so mayors, governors and other local officials are scrambling to fill the gaps. As oil prices drop, energy-dependent states like Texas, Alaska, New Mexico and Louisiana are suffering particular pain, but others states like Maryland and Virginia are also facing deficits close to or exceeding $1 billion in their upcoming fiscal years.

This week, the National Association of Counties declared that economic recovery has been anemic in many counties, and expressed the fear that federal policies, including appropriations cuts, might worsen the situation.

So the philosophical confronts the practical: To what extent can congressional Republicans pursue their anti-spending drive when it threatens the fiscal stability of the states, 28 of which are now run by GOP governors.

Dependency Data

The explosive growth of federal grant programs has been tracked over the years in Table 12.2 of the Historical Tables of the U.S. Government Budget, and also by the Government Accountability Office.  

The Budget Historical Tables document actually looks not only backward but also forward based on current trends, and a year ago it estimated that grants to state and local governments would total $640.8 billion in the 2015 fiscal year, in the following categories:

The complexities and interdependencies of many of these grant programs is legendary—enough to prompt GAO to issue a long report detailing their duplication and overlap.

But the reports from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and GAO do not offer the level of detail on federal spending in the states that once was the province of the U.S. Census Bureau, which until 2012 published its annual Consolidated Federal Funds Report detailing spending in the states.

Nor does USASpending.gov, managed by the U.S. General Services Administration, offer a comprehensive accounting of spending in the states. The website was recently found to have omitted more than $600 billion in grants and awards, and its current version captures only $134.7 billion in grants for 2015, according to The Washington Post.

Two think tanks have stepped into the data breach: The National Priorities Project with a website called State Smart and the the Pew Charitable Trusts with its Fiscal Federalism Initiative.

In admirable detail, these sites illuminate the dependency of the states on subventions from Uncle Sam. State Smart calculates that federal grants comprised 32 percent of state government revenues in 2012. In early January, the Tax Foundation joined the parade, with maps also detailing states’ reliance on federal funding.

According to State Smart data, In Maine, the share was 36.5 percent, or $3 billion, to fund Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Community Development Block Grants and other programs.

Maine’s state budget is more dependent on federal grants than most other states. The Pine Tree State is outranked only by Mississippi (at the top with 45.4 percent), Louisiana, Missouri, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona. Least dependent are North Dakota, Virginia and Connecticut, each with less than 25 percent of revenues coming from Uncle Sam.

An interactive map, one of many on these sites, allows citizens to see the sources of state government revenue. Other maps show such data as the flow of federal funds into every state from programs directly compensating individual residents (where Florida ranks first). Pew’s site allows state and county-specific searches showing flows of federal funds of in a wide variety of programs.

To Have or Have Not

Grant programs can be viewed as bribery: Uncle Sam offering dough to induce state and local governments to undertake activities they might otherwise eschew. The programs can also be seen as a form of coercion: Uncle Sam makes money available to states, and those who don’t take it end up subsidizing, through their citizens’ federal tax payments, those who do.

Medicaid offers a leading example of the principles in play. In 2012, the Supreme Court, ruling in National Federation of Independent Business et al v. Sebelius, declared that states did not have to accept the substantial enlargement of the Medicaid program mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Many Republican governors have turned the expansion down; at last count, 22 states had not yet embraced it.

Medicaid has long claimed large shares of state budgets, so governors and legislators may be wary of promises that Uncle Sam will cover 93 percent of the expansion’s cost through 2022.

At the same time those who refuse are leaving a lot of money on the table. The drama has been playing out in Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, is preparing to ask the legislature again for authority to expand.

By covering those with higher incomes than under the existing program, the expansion would extend coverage to 400,000 Virginians who now have little or no insurance. McAuliffe’s ambition is not given much of a chance in the Republican-controlled legislature, even though the expansion would bring $1.8 billion per year in federal funding to the state, or nearly $15 billion over the next eight years.

The Texas State Capitol in Austin (Photo by f11photo /Shutterstock.com)

Texas has also avoided the Medicaid expansion. But plummeting energy prices have crimped the Lone Star State’s budget at a time when there’s much demand for infrastructure and education improvements.

As The El Paso Times reported on Jan. 3, the budget squeeze may induce reluctant Republican legislators to find a way to adopt the expansion, which would bring a tidy $100 billion to the state by 2022.

The Texas situation illustrates the tensions between embracing the welfare state and standing on conservative principle. Explosive growth of the food stamps program offers another example.

While conservatives in Congress have been anxious to cut back on the program—and the U.S. House last year passed a major reduction—officials in Republican-led states like Florida have hired people to enroll eligible citizens in what’s now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the knowledge that this will boost incomes in their jurisdictions. SNAP, an entitlement program, has become a major budget item, spending some $70 billion in 2014.

And new grant programs are always on the horizon. High-speed rail improvements and Race to the Top education programs, for example, were created as part of the federal stimulus program. Only some states participated, and Race to the Top has now been ended.

Just last week, President Obama said his fiscal 2016 budget would unveil a brand new program of subsidies designed to cut the cost of attending community college to zero.

The Conservative Case

An op-ed column by conservative commentator George Will, published Dec. 8, drew attention to a new book by former New York Sen. James L. Buckley that offers the most comprehensive critique of the federal grants-in-aid “cornucopia” yet published.

Buckley’s book is titled “Saving Congress From Itself,” but its subtitle more precisely captures its thesis: “Emancipating the States and Empowering Their People.”

The book is replete with examples of distortions occasioned by federal programs. One that raised Buckley’s hackles was a $430,000 grant to a nearby school district to widen sidewalks—the money flowing from a $180 million-a-year Safe Routes to School program, whose aim is to fight obesity by encouraging kids to walk or bike to school.

Buckley writes:

The problem today is that those governing our towns and states are no longer in control of a large proportion of the government activities that affect our lives. In too many respects, our state officials now serve as administrators of programs designed in Washington by civil servants who are beyond our reach, immune to the discipline of the ballot box, and the least informed about our particular conditions and needs.

Even in a post-earmarks world, as Buckley notes, members of Congress spend a lot of their time making sure their districts are adequately served by the hundreds of grant programs. Organizations like the National Governors Association and the National Conference of Mayors exist to lobby the feds for more money—and less regulation—and more than 400 cities have seen fit to hire their own lobbyists at a very considerable cost.  And, of course, many recipients see the federal largesse as “free money” they would be leaving on the table if they didn’t apply.’

Richard A. Epstein, professor of law at New York University, and Mario Loyola, a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation teamed up last year to write a scathing attack on what they termed the “relentless expansion of federal power.”

In a July 31 treatise published by The Atlantic, Epstein and Loyola write:

Programs like Medicaid, Common Core, the Clean Air Act and the federal highway system enjoy popular support because they appear to allow the federal government to accomplish things all Americans want, at least in the short run. But those programs often turn states into mere field offices of the federal government, often against their will, in turn creating a host of structural problems.

They observe that states that might establish their own health programs for the needy would be giving up Medicaid funding that their citizens had, through their taxes, already paid for, in effect paying twice to provide the same services. The Common Core educational standards, initially developed by the governors’ association, was in effect made a condition of receiving education grants by the Obama administration. States lose highway funds if they drop their legal drinking age below 21. These and other examples they characterize as a pressing “separation-of-powers issue” urgently in need of correction.

Action This Year

Obama’s proposal to make community college free to serious students would cost federal taxpayers $60 billion over 10 years, according to administration estimates. Participating states would be required to put up a quarter of overall costs, probably another $20 billion. The GOP-controlled Congress may find this a relatively painless means of saying no to further expansion of the huge federal grants cornucopia.

But conservatives will find cutting back on existing grant programs, each serving entrenched interests, a considerably heavier lift. Their successes and failures in shaving federal spending will play out in budget and appropriations action that will soon get underway.

Timothy B. Clark is editor at large at Government Executive.

It’s really simple: pay more taxes and/or change priorities

We have an $18+ trillion debt. To chip away at it all that needs to be done is pay more taxes and/or change the priorities. Of course, there are many different government programs that contribute to this debt. As this debt continues to grow, ironically, our country’s deteriorating infrastructure continues to be ignored.

The country’s infrastructure – roads, bridges , seaports – are in need of attention. However, there seems to be little desire to do anything other than “a patch here and a patch there.”

It boils down to how much are we willing to spend (i.e. taxing the people) and what are the priorities? (This isn’t limited to infrastructure!)

Federal gas tax since 1993 has been 18.4 cents/gallon. (more)

Some advocate increasing this tax. Others favor reducing current expenditures. Part of this 18.4 cents is used for the Transportation Alternatives Program that includes the recreational trails program and the safe routes to school program. (more)

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail used $36 million of this 18.4 cents for its creation. (more)

The Transportation Alternatives Program was apportioned for the 2014 fiscal year almost $820 million and this included more than $81.5 million for the Recreational Trails Program. (more, including individual state apportionments)

A state-by-state listing of the 2012 Discretionary Grants with a description and funding amount are listed here. As a suggestion you might want to search “trail” in this information.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in its publication “Trust or Bust: Fixing the Highway Trust Fund” lists “Fig. 4: Options for Savings Within the Highway Trust Fund” and “Fig. 5: Options for Savings to Offset General Revenue Transfers.” One of the options for savings is to eliminate the Transportation Alternatives Program that includes the Recreational Trails Program. (more)

Paying more taxes or revising priorities becomes complicated when 535 Congressional members and the President must reach a consensus. Help them out by contacting your members. Regardless, we either pay more taxes and/or change the priorities.