Bill Murchison

You can't make this stuff up. First, the name of the program -- Cash for Clunkers. Then the origin, the fountainhead -- to wit, the U.S. Congress. Then the results: unexpected demand for participation, unanticipated shortages of cash, bureaucratic unresponsiveness, public and congressional consternation.

Many of the politicians who designed Cash for Clunkers want now to re-design the American health care system. Oh, yeah?

The private sector of the economy, manned as it is by fallible humans, has its faults and shortcomings. Yet, when it comes to stumbles and misfires, nothing exceeds government, with its built-in immunity to pressure from the operations of the marketplace. Witness Cash for Clunkers, aka the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS).

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If you're driving a gas-guzzling clunker, you qualify -- supposedly -- for a federal subsidy of up to $4500 on purchase of a new vehicle. Away goes the clunker. Vroom, vroom -- here comes the cleaner-fueled car you buy as a replacement, incidentally aiding hard-pressed dealers.

Last week, to widespread derision as well as irritation, the Transportation Department put the clunkers program up on blocks. Congress had voted only $1 billion for the program. With three months to go, and nearly a tenth of the money spent by July 29, future funding prospects looked shaky indeed. Who could have forseen it? Nobody in Congress, apparently.

Mass confusion descended, concerning which the New York Times provided one arresting account: "Barry Magnus, the general manager at DCCH Paramus Honda in New Jersey, said he had sold more than two dozen new cars under the program but was still owed more than $80,000. The government had said it would take 10 days to reimburse dealers, and that was before the program ran out of money. The government Web site on which dealers were supposed to register their deals crashed, and many dealers have not been able to update their information."

Hustling off for the August recess, House members conjured up another $2 billion and threw it into the clunkers cashbox, leaving the Senate to tidy up. Not your prettiest picture of Politics in Action, especially given the Democrats' August back-home mission of selling the country on pending plans to let the federal government manage health care.

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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