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Everyone for Himself in Federal Budget Process

by Bill Virgin, Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - February 8, 2005

Bill Virgin How dare you, sir, propose frivolously spending billions on your subsidized boondoggle that benefits only people in your region, and then only a few greedy rich people.

And how dare you, madam, so coldly and heartlessly propose cutting spending, a mere pittance compared with the total, for a vital program so desperately needed in our poor part of the country populated by humble, hardworking people.

Welcome to the ugly, messy, partisan, fractious, parochial and often hypocritical world of federal budget writing.

The release of an administration's proposed budget is always an opportunity for high- volume posturing and high-profile outrage; someone's pet program and favored cause is either getting cut or not getting enough of an increase.

But this year the caterwauling promises to be (promises? Heck, it already is) louder, longer and more frequent.

That's because the money is tighter, the stakes are higher and the proposals about what should be cut are a lot more specific.

Much of the complaining in the Northwest yesterday about the Bush administration's proposed budget centered on the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets electricity from Columbia River system dams (and one nuclear plant) to the region's utilities.

The Office of Management and Budget's proposal calls for raising the rates of the power marketing agencies (including Bonneville) "closer to average market rates throughout the country."

Now this is not exactly a new fight. Past administrations have taken a run at Bonneville before, only to be shouted down on the grounds (repeated yesterday) that the BPA's cheap hydropower is vital to the Northwest's economy.

But what to us looks like an absolute linchpin of our economy looks to the rest of the country like a cushy deal that everyone else pays for. That's a point made in the OMB proposal: Bonneville rates "are artificially low because taxpayers across the nation have borne some of the (power marketers') costs. ... This proposal will create a more level playing field for the nation's electricity suppliers and encourage appropriate energy conservation."

The Northwest's electricity has long been eyed with covetousness down in California, where politicians and power users wonder why they shouldn't be able to compete for cheap Northwest hydropower (currently the Northwest enjoys a "preference" with California getting to bid only on what we've got left over). Californians figure they could pay more for the BPA's electricity than Northwesterners currently do, which would be less than what they're paying now.

Feel like sharing? Didn't think so.

Then there's agriculture, where the administration, citing several years of increases in farm production, prices and income, proposes to reduce certain subsidy and loan programs. OMB wants to reduce crop and dairy payments by 5 percent.

That has some big implications for the state's ag sector, primarily concentrated east of the mountains. Reducing subsidy, support and loan programs would remove the safety net and accelerate the trend toward consolidation, resulting in ever larger farms -- or so argue the supporters of keeping and increasing such programs. Is it worth it to you to keep the family farm going, even if it means higher tax and grocery bills? Or should agriculture be any less vulnerable to the trends that are hitting every other industry and occupation?

Then there's poor old Amtrak. The Bush administration is proposing to yank all operating subsidies for intercity passenger service unless major changes are made, including spinning off the Northeast corridor operations; the rest, such as long-haul trains, would be left to the states to decide if they want to operate them.

That's of interest in the Northwest, where Amtrak and the states of Washington and Oregon have for 11 years sponsored increased service along the Eugene-to-Vancouver, B.C., corridor. Is it worth it to the taxpayers of these two states to pay more to keep that service going? Does the rest of the country care whether you can take a train from Seattle to Portland -- much less care to pay for it?

Maybe these and a telephone book-thick list of other federal expenditures for the Northwest are worthy and deserve support. Asserting that for every listing, though, makes it hard to object to the highway project or the new college-campus building that looks superfluous to us but is of crucial importance to someone in Florida, or New England, or the Upper Midwest, or. ...

Very rarely does the sound and fury over budget proposals signify much of anything because it's not really the way we act, or vote. The politicians who campaign on how hard they "fought" to get money for their state or district are merely responding to voter desires. Campaigning on a platform of rejecting money for the home territory (A big Boeing contract? No, thanks, we don't need it. Put the BPA's electricity on the open market? Sure.) is not a recipe for longevity in office. In the end, instead of picking and choosing, evaluating what spending is efficient and effective and what is waste, everybody gets something.

In theory, we make fun of, or claim to loathe, the way both the administration and Congress spend money. In practice, this is the system we've asked for -- and, absent significant change, deserve.

Bill Virgin, Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist
Everyone for Himself in Federal Budget Process
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 8, 2005

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