Baby, The Rain Must Fall, The Wind Must Blow. And Congress Must Spend.

A conservative friend posted a clever and shrewd tweet today.  Democrats (and some Republicans) on the Senate Finance Committee are holding up confirmation of US trade representative Robert Lighthizer, demanding a bailout of union miners’ pension funds in exchange for their votes.  What’s new?  This kind of arm-twisting politics is standard operating procedure in Congress.  But my friend’s exasperated reaction to the benevolent-sounding Miners Protection Act points out a fact that never seems to occur to anybody inside the Beltway:  “Taxpayers are not ATMs!  It’s not your money to give away!”

taxpayers-not-atmsI realized a while back that most legislators (and presidents for that matter) don’t worry about taxpayer disapproval when they pass a spending bill.  Here’s why:

  • Most voters don’t pay federal income tax, or pay very little.  They don’t feel personally impacted by government spending, because they think the money is extracted from somebody else – the “rich guys”.  Members of Congress (especially Democrats who rely on low-income or no-income voters to keep them in office) are heroes to their constituents when they spend more money.  In fact, incumbent legislators are almost always re-elected because they can brag about “bringing home the bacon” to their home districts.
  • Americans don’t worry about spending more money because there doesn’t seem to be any down-side.  Unlike families or businesses, the government never runs out of money, regardless of tax revenue or spending levels.  Our leaders have learned that they can print and/or borrow money without limit, because nobody has the courage to shut down the government and send employees home.  Yes, we have a $20 trillion debt.  Yes, interest on savings has been non-existent for many years.  Yes, wages have been stagnant for decades as the government crowds out private enterprise, gobbling an ever-growing bite of the GDP pie.  Yes, if continued it will all come crumbling down on the heads of our children and grandchildren. But the average Joe still doesn’t relate government spending to his own financial well-being.  In fact, most people think more government spending helps them.
  • And when you get right down to it, our congressmen are only doing what they were born to do.  The job description of a legislator can be boiled down to four words.  What do you do for a living?  Spend other people’s money.  The rain falls.  The wind blows.  Congressmen spend.  It is existential.  In the eyes of a government official, the solution to every problem is to spend more money.  If he isn’t spending money, he is a “do nothing” congressman.

Fortunately, the election showed that there are still (barely) enough Americans with a grasp on reality to step on the brakes before our nation careens off the financial cliff, taking the civilized world along for the plunge.  Our voices were finally heard.  But the narrow victory last November was just the beginning.  Too many of our leaders either still don’t get it, or will soon forget that they got it.  We may have stopped at the edge of the cliff.  But the cliff is still there.

We can’t eliminate all government spending, and in some strategic areas we will have to invest more than we have in recent years.  But it’s childish and dangerous to think that all of our current expenditures are still necessary and untouchable, and our only option is to spend more.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right Side

Some men climb a mountain,
Some men swim the sea,
Some men fly above the sky:
They are what they must be.
But, baby the rain must fall,
Baby, the wind must blow,
Wherever my heart leads me
Baby, I must go. Baby I must go.

Glenn Yarbrough – Baby The Rain Must Fall

The music scene in the early 60s went through a sometimes awkward transition from “folk” music to “rock”.  The Band was Bob Dylan’s backup group when he first put down his acoustic guitar and went electric.  After getting booed off the stage every night for weeks, Robbie Robertson, Levi Helm and the rest of The Band quit and went their own way, but Dylan soldiered on, clearly ahead of his time.  Here’s another example of the folk/rock insurgency: check out the blonde dancer bravely bouncing through folkster Glenn Yarbrough’s smoothie!



Heritage Foundation Eats An Elephant


graphic by Sean Gallo

Have you heard anything lately about the budget?  Is anybody still concerned about the size and growth of our federal government, our $20 trillion (and growing) debt, and the decomposing cadaver our economy has become?

It seems strange at a time when there is so much political buzz, nobody is talking much about our fiscal problem.  The presidential candidates from both sides show little or no concern, probably because the topic is not “sexy” enough for media coverage.

Well, I hate to be a buzz-killer, but the budget elephant is still in the room, getting bigger and smellier every day.

We have been repeatedly told by our political leaders and media pundits that our fiscal problem is too impossibly huge to even think about. Well, it’s not. This can be solved.  Why not roll up our sleeves and start working on it?  Like, now?

Fortunately, we still have one shining treasure in our national vault — the Heritage Foundation.  This group of geniuses has no fear of tackling big, vexing problems.  And they have a solution for our seemingly intractable spending problem.  It’s called the “Blueprint for Balance – A Federal Budget for 2017”.

How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time. The Blueprint for Balance is a six-course elephant dinner:

  • SLOW THE GROWTH IN SPENDING, while fully funding national security needs
  • CUT TAXES by $1.3 trillion over 10 years
  • BALANCE THE BUDGET within seven years
  • REDUCE SPENDING by $10.5 trillion and cut the deficit by $9.2 trillion over 10 years
  • ELIMINATE BUDGET GIMMICKS and establish a process to address unauthorized appropriations
  • ELIMINATE PROGRAMS that produce favoritism and limit opportunity

These are not just wishes or slogans.  Each course is real-world, detailed and dollarized into chewable bites.

Here’s an example.  One of hundreds of cost-saving recommendations would eliminate subsidies for Power Marketing Administrations (PMAs), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS). This proposal saves $438 million in FY 2017.

When I lived in rural Montana, my electricity was provided by a rural cooperative with outstanding local service at a reasonable (albeit heavily subsidized) price. Now I live in an urban area with a huge nuclear power plant operated by the nation’s largest electric utility company only a few miles from my home.  My electricity should be cheap, right?  Oh heck no!  Because I am forced to subscribe to a ‘grandfathered’ rural electric cooperative, my rates are much higher than my neighbors who are served by the big guys. Plus the co-op gets taxpayer subsidies.

At the turn of the century it was necessary to establish rural electric cooperatives.  There was no other way to provide affordable electricity in sparsely-populated areas.  But like most government programs, it has outlived its purpose.

This is just one bite – there are hundreds of others, some big and some small, in the Blueprint for Balance. I hope my congressman is hungry, because I am going to ask him to start chewing.  Please ask yours to do the same.  If every congressman takes a couple of bites, we can do this.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right SideGonna live each minute,
‘Til I’ve had my fill
Aw, girl, I’ll be rollin’ in it!
Yes, yes, you know I will,!

Hungry – Paul Revere and the Raiders



“US Government, Sorry I’m Not Able to Take Your Call”

When any organization gets too big it becomes hard to manage.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be managed.  Many huge companies are very well run.  Most people would agree that our military sets a high bar for disciplined management.  Operationally, at least.

Why is our federal government such a disorganized, inefficient mess?  What is lacking in the federal government world that other large organizations seem to have in abundance?

We do have organizational charts for our federal government.  There is an interactive one online.  Here’s the short version (click to enlarge):

The full version with all of the departments and all 3 million federal employees would probably cover the floor of Cowboys Stadium in a 12-point font. Of course within a nano-second, it would be obsolete.

Most Americans would expect to see our President in the top box.  After all, he has been known to say “the buck stops here,” even while pointing fingers in every direction and blaming historical figures for the nation’s problems.

The official federal org chart has “the Constitution” in the top box.  It would make more sense to me with “We the People” at the top.   We can hire and fire all those below us on the chart.  We can hold the President, the Congress, and (through appointments) the Supreme Court accountable.  It is up to us, as voters, to make sure that everyone in the federal government is doing what we want them to do.

But we citizens don’t agree on much of anything.  Many of us don’t really care how our government operates.  And even if we did, the organization is so huge that we have to rely on layers and layers of managers who we don’t know and will never see.

Is there anything we can do?  Where do we “citizen managers” start?

I think the first thing we should do is check to see who is at work.  Here is my plan, and I would like you to join me.

Go to and pick out five federal government employees.  It’s really easy to follow the links through the website to identify agencies and administrators at every level.  You might choose agencies in your hometown, or an office in which you are interested.  Or maybe you will just pick names and phone numbers at random.

At 2:30 on any weekday afternoon, or at 1:00 on a Friday, call the people on your list to see who is at work, and who is taking the rest of the day off.

In the unlikely event the federal employee you are calling actually answers the phone, say “Hi, I’m a taxpayer, and I’m just calling to make sure you are on the job.  Thank you!”

If not, leave a message of your choice, maybe something like:  “Hi, I’m your boss, a taxpayer; it’s 2:30 pm and you should be working.  I am going to follow up with your supervisor.”

Here are my random calls at 2:30 this Tuesday afternoon:

  • Rosanna Goodwill – Acting Director of Civil Rights, Federal Railroad Administration:  recording said she is “away from her desk, leave a message.”
  • Neil Moyer – Acting Director of Office of Policy, Federal Railroad Administration:  recording said he is “not available right now, leave a message.”
  • Don E. Watson – Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Advisory Board:  recording said he is “not available to take your call, leave a message.”  I wanted to ask him why we need his agency.

I left messages for each, expressing my disappointment that nobody in federal government is at work this afternoon.

I will allow that there are times when someone is legitimately not able to answer a call.  But I’ll bet the answer rate is under 10% after 2:00 every afternoon.  I have tried this experiment many times, and have never had my call answered.  Not once.

I don’t know if our government employees care if we catch them slacking.  If nobody ever checks on them, they might start to wonder if it matters whether they are there at all.   Anyway, we are the bosses, and we should make at least the minimum effort to supervise our employees.   Please make some calls!

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Okay. So no one’s answering.
Well can’t you just let it ring a little longer, longer, longer, ohhhhh!
I’ll just sit tight, through shadows of the night.
And let it ring for evermore.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Telephone Line – Electric Light Orchestra

Montana’s Share of the Stimulus (my eyes glaze over)

Here are some tidbits from, the federal government website that provides information about the $765 billion in stimulus money spent under the Recovery Act since February of 2009.

Montana received just over $1.5 billion under the Recovery Act.  $1.1 billion of that was awarded in the form of grants.

The largest single recipient was the Montana DOT at $208 million.  Second was the Fort Peck, Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes at $67 million, followed by Montana Opticom, LLC, a provider of fiber optic internet facilities, at $64 million.  Native American tribes altogether scored about $180 million, not including payments to reservation cities, hospitals and schools.  K-12 education received about $150 million, while about $133 million went directly to cities and counties.  Post-secondary education got about $110 million.

Randomly digging into details reveals some interesting expenditures.  Energy Solutions of Moab, Utah billed $105 million for “remediation services” and subbed out a fair portion of that to smaller companies, also mostly from Utah.  Like $45 grand to “David’s Elite Thrones” for what appears to be porta-potties, and several million to companies like “Cj5 Enterprises” and “Fraley & Co., Inc.” – firms so mysterious that they are not mentioned anywhere on the web.

The McLaughlin Center in Great Falls got $760,000 for a high-tech microscope system.  Eleven Boys and Girls Clubs got an average of $40k each.  Domestic and Sexual Violence Services of Carbon County received about $500k for their counseling and housing program.  Their report says this created two full-time jobs.

When I see huge dollars like this bouncing around like pinballs, the cynic in me says that the corruption, waste and paybacks to cronies must be astronomical.  The top two officers from Energy Solutions split $4.5 million in annual salaries.  Still, looking at some project details – like the rehab of barracks at Malmstrom AFB,  I see local companies doing real work and paying real employees.  That $25 million dollar job was won, and mostly subbed out to locals, by Sunstar, LLC of California.  Their top two guys take salaries of $75k each.

Kudos to Recovery.Gov for making this extensive spending detail transparent and available online – the State of Montana should take heed.

The Recovery Act was intended to produce jobs, and it did that – but the CBO reported that the cost per job is about $228k, and most are temporary.  Did the Recovery Act do any good?  Probably.  Did the taxpayers get full bang for their bucks?  Doubtful.  Are we and our children further in debt?  For sure.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

There ain’t no use to tarry so let’s start out tonight
We’ll spread joy, oh boy, oh boy, and we’ll spread it right
We’ll have more fun, baby, all way down the line
If you’ve got the money, honey, I’ve got the time

If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time – Willie Nelson