If you want to understand how difficult it is to cut the federal deficit -- it will surpass $400 billion in the 2007 budget -- take a look at the Byrne grants. Named after New York City police officer Edward Byrne, who was killed by drug dealers, the grants have provided annually about $500 million to local law-enforcement efforts since the program was signed into law by the first President Bush. Critics on the left and the right consider the program to be ill-conceived and ineffective, and they've urged Washington to eliminate the grants. But Congress keeps pouring millions into the program.
David Mulhausen, a policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, considers the Byrne grants to be mostly "pork projects." He sees "a big accountability problem."
Mulhausen is not alone. The White House Office of Management and Budget studied the Byrne grants and gave the program a 13 percent rating for results and accountability. That's an F-.
Last year, the National Taxpayers Union and Citizens Against Government Waste signed a letter urging congressional appropriators to eliminate the Byrne grants.
No such luck. President George W. Bush, to his credit, has departed from his big-spending ways in seeking to reduce -- and now to eliminate -- Byrne grants, as part of the administration's ongoing post-9/11 effort to streamline U.S. Department of Justice funding in order to maximize the money spent on homeland security. According to the OMB, the Bush administration and Congress have reduced Byrne-grant funding by two-thirds since 2001.
Alex Conant of the OMB explained that "federal law-enforcement funds need to be spent where they are most effective, and Byrne grants have failed to demonstrate significant effectiveness."
Tom Finnigan of Citizens Against Government Waste noted how the administration has tried to figure out which programs don't work and de-fund them -- "and yet Congress earmarks these funds every year, year after year."
And, "If (members of Congress) can't cut programs that are ineffective and wasteful, then it just shows they are incapable of spending restraint." Too true.
That's the problem. Columnists and fiscal watchdogs all agree that federal spending is out of control. Democrats are having a grand time slamming Bush for his big spending, but as soon as Bush tries to cut an actual program, it becomes a vital endeavor, the loss of which will be harmful to hardworking taxpayers.
Pork-happy lawmakers rush to defend the program. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Mark Dayton, D-Minn., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., all have boasted that they want to keep bankrolling Byrne grants. If you come from farm country, you talk like Leahy -- and hail the grants as important for "a rural state." Or you say that the funding is essential to fight methamphetamine abuse -- as Harkin and Dayton argued -- even though local officials are charged with enforcing those laws.
You would never guess that Byrne grants also funded bad law enforcement -- most notably the Tulia scandal, which began when Bush was the governor of Texas. A white investigator of a Byrne-funded task force testified against dozens of black residents in Tulia, Texas, for dealing cocaine. They were convicted, even though no drugs were presented as evidence at trial. Later, Gov. Rick Perry pardoned most of the Tulia convicts, and onetime defendants reached a $5 million settlement with local officials.
Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance, which opposes the war on drugs, believes that abuses such as the Tulia travesty occur when "the federal government is handing money out like candy" and there is no real accountability.
Piper also argues that "the war on drugs is an area that you could cut without political consequences." Alas, there also are no real consequences, because Congress keeps sneaking the money back into the budget. I would agree, except that the press releases sent out by Byrne-loving senators suggest that there is little upside in cutting drug-war spending.
As the National Taxpayers Union's Paul Gessing noted, "The people who have the most at stake lobby very hard, whereas it's hard for the average citizen to keep track of this stuff."
I fault Bush for not vetoing his first farm bill, which enabled Congress' big spending. Now that he is trying to do the right thing, he stands alone. If the president can't push Congress to kill a program that is 13 percent effective, then he can't cut anything, because there is no will to spend responsibly in Washington.