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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

first place.

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

federal government.

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."