Slowly moving toward the right question
"This Democratic package represents a renewed federal commitment to the people of Oregon, the rural west and the nation."
-- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, March 20, 2007
Now this is interesting. Senator Reid's commitment -- $4.7 billion
to mostly-western rural counties over five years -- doesn't just
exceed the dreams of Oregon's most optimistic leaders. It also
moves our attention closer to the right question.
Until now the argument in Congress has turned on the question of
whether Northwest timber counties "deserve" renewed federal
payments. Yes, say most Oregonians, and we make the case with
stories of broken O&C Railroad promises and spotted owls. No,
say many who live in unforested counties across the country; as
fascinating as our colorful old tales may be, the hard fact is that
they're generally paying more for local services than we do, and
they're not keen on subsidizing Oregon's sweet deal by sending us
more federal tax dollars.
This debate is a pointless distraction. There's a much better
question. Does the federal government, with its contemporary fiscal
performance and accountability, "deserve" to drain all 50 states of
so much tax revenue that there's rarely enough left over to provide
good basic services? We've become so accustomed to seeing local
officials crawl to the feds with hat in hand that we've almost
forgotten whose pockets "federal" tax dollars come from in the
Maybe we should get less accustomed to how things are. Maybe we
should remember that most of our tax dollars go to Washington and
ask whether Washington returns to us the most value in government
services. Maybe we should reflect on how communities across the
country are tearing themselves apart looking for three to four
million dollars to keep libraries or jails or health clinics open
while the Pentagon admits it can't account for three to four
trillion -- that's trillion -- dollars it's received in recent
budget allocations. Maybe it's time to shake our heads clear of old
timber tales and join with taxpayers everywhere to demand clear
fiscal accountability -- value delivered for taxes paid -- from the
Some rock-ribbed conservatives among you are setting this page down right now with a smile or smirk. How many years, how many decades, have you been trying to tell us the feds are much too fat? Where have people like me been?
Well, in part we've been defending functions of government that we
favor, and that some states and local government have been
unwilling or unable to sustain. Environmental protection, civil
rights enforcement and special education come to mind as three
examples, and they're complex challenges we'll have to face if we
start paring down federal government. With that said -- OK, yes,
you told us so.
I started getting religion on a summer afternoon in Washington 20
years ago. I stood on Independence Avenue scanning blocks of
sand-colored buildings on both sides of the street, their upper
stories linked together by a long skybridge. My street map
identified the whole complex, every single enormous structure, as
the Department of Agriculture. I looked at this sprawling fortress
and could only wonder what, dear Lord, are they all doing in there? The USDA budget is about $89 billion this year, not counting much
of the Farm Bill that goes directly to agricultural interests. Some
of it surely funds solid programs that deliver real value.
But what if we converted half of USDA's buildings to low-income
housing (or indoor soccer fields or paintball battlegrounds) and
transferred half their budget to counties to support family farms
and launch urban community gardens? We could ask similar questions about the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Labor, Housing, Transportation or Health and Human Services -- and we should.
Changes like these will antagonize entrenched interests and run
into thickets of complex details. Some of them might not turn out
to be good ideas. But it's clear that the current government
hierarchy doesn't serve us.
We have desperate local and state officials, the people who've had
to learn the most about providing cost-effective services, begging
an essentially unaccountable federal government to return a small
fraction of tax dollars to the communities that paid them. Some of
the beggars have better supporting arguments than others --
Oregon's record of timberland agreements isn't bad -- but all of
them are part of a struggle for a more fiscally rational country.
One part we can play is to elect people to Congress who will live
up to campaign promises to remember whose tax dollars they're
spending, and who see local and state officials as partners in good
government instead of panhandlers with a tired story.
Jeff Golden is host of The Jefferson Exchange and author of "As If We Were Grownups."