The Right Way to Cut Federal Spending

Resembling a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, deficit hawks are taking over Washington. They held up an extension of unemployment benefits and are poised to attack Social Security, Medicare and other supposedly out-of-control forms of federal spending. At a time when government outlays, at least those of the safety net variety, should be expanding to address the ongoing economic crisis, Republicans and many Democrats alike have bought into the dubious idea that now is a time for fiscal austerity.

Apart from the battle over entitlements, there is more sensible effort under way to cut spending that benefits those who need it the least: large corporations. One welcome side effect of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster is that increased attention is being paid to the ways that federal policies reward the likes of BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips. On the Fourth of July, the New York Times devoted part of its front page to a story on this largesse, writing: “oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process.”

According to a detailed analysis prepared by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts in 2008, total federal subsidies to the oil and gas industry in 2006 were about $3.5 billion. The Times article puts the current cost at about $4 billion. A recent Citizens for Tax Justice report points out that these tax breaks do little to benefit the public and serve mainly to fatten profits and enrich investors.

Efforts to eliminate these subsidies—including one pursued last month by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—have generally come to naught, given the petroleum industry’s formidable influence in Congress. One of the more persistent initiatives is Green Scissors, a 15-year-old project that targets subsidies not only to the energy sector but also to agribusiness, mining and highways — challenging them on environmental as well as fiscal grounds. The Green Scissors 2010 report – just issued by Friends of the Earth, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Environment America and Public Citizen – tallies more than $31 billion in oil and gas subsidies that could be cut over the next five years. The total Green Scissors hit-list amounts to more than $200 billion for that period, with much of the remainder coming from subsidies to other energy sectors such as coal, nuclear and biofuels.

Attacking these costly and harmful subsidies is a noble endeavor, but it may be more effective not to take on the entire energy industry at once. Another significant feature of the Gulf of Mexico disaster is the breakdown of corporate solidarity. BP’s major rivals have taken pains to distance themselves from the British company, implicitly depicting it as a renegade on safety matters. Four of them just formed a rapid-response force to deal with future spills without involving BP in the planning.

In this context, it might make sense to focus on making certain companies, beginning with BP, ineligible for all or part of the federal energy subsidy banquet. Until now, the tax breaks and other benefits have been treated as entitlements, there for the taking by any company involved in certain activities.

Why not modify the Internal Revenue Code so that the subsidies are not available to companies with a poor safety or environmental record, especially those like BP that have paid criminal fines for violations in those areas? The federal government has an Excluded Parties List (albeit underused) for contractors that have been barred from doing business with Uncle Sam. Shouldn’t there be a similar list for subsidy recipients?

Even better would be the creation of good-behavior criteria for receiving those subsidies in the first place. If corporations were required to have a record free of significant violations of regulations relating to the environment, occupational safety and health, employment practices, antitrust, etc., then there would probably be a lot fewer recipients and it might be easier to do away with these giveaways once and for all.

Profit, Baby, Profit

President Obama’s drill-baby-drill (but not quite everywhere) gambit does not only link him to an environmentally backward policy. It also will force his Administration to defend one of the most dysfunctional federal programs in modern history: the Interior Department’s offshore oil and gas leasing system.

Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) is supposed to collect royalties from companies drilling in offshore public waters. After new activity was restricted in the wake of the devastating spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California in 1969, the oil industry sought to make its leases more profitable by pressing for reductions in these payments.

In the mid-1990s, when energy prices were low, Big Oil got Congress to expand the “royalty relief” provisions that were already in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953. Royalties were supposed to return to higher rates when prices rebounded, but things got complicated. First, it came to light that MMS had failed to write those provisions into some 1,000 deepwater leases it signed in 1998 and 1999, putting into question its ability to collect billions of dollars in back royalties.

While this was being sorted out, one of the drilling companies – Kerr-McGee (now part of Anadarko Petroleum) – filed suit challenging the right of MMS to impose the higher royalties on any leases. The company’s self-serving arguments found a sympathetic ear in federal court. Last fall the Supreme Court declined to review an appellate ruling in favor of the company, thus allowing Anadarko to avoid paying more than $350 million in back royalties. For the industry as a whole, the Court blocked the Interior Department from trying to collect on a bill that the Government Accountability Office once estimated could run as high as $53 billion.

Then there’s the small matter of the wild parties and gifts that industry representatives lavished on MMS employees in charge of the agency’s royalty-in-kind program. In September 2008 Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney (now in charge of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board) issued three reports describing gross misconduct at MMS, including cases in which agency employees were literally in bed with the industry. Devaney concluded that the royalty program was mired in “a culture of ethical failure.”

Not all MMS employees were bought off. Some agency auditors came forward and charged that they had been pressured by their superiors to terminate investigations of royalty underpayments.

Once the Obama Administration took office, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took steps to clean up MMS. Last September he announced plans to terminate the royalty-in-kind program, whose staffers had been at the center of the sex and gifts scandal.

For a while it was unclear whether Salazar would tighten up the remaining royalty programs. In fact, he told the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle last fall that in some cases he thought drilling companies should pay even lower royalty rates. He changed his tune this year, and the Administration is seeking modest increases in royalties and fees.

Yet the entire offshore leasing program still amounts to a giant boondoggle. Thanks to the federal courts, artificially low royalty rates are now effectively an entitlement for the drilling industry. Research conducted by the Interior Department itself suggested that the incentives result in little additional oil production. Not to mention the environmental risks.

And now, thanks to a dubious calculation that making concessions on offshore drilling will help prospects for a climate bill, the Obama Administration is bringing about a major expansion of a program that is disastrous even if there are no spills. Profit, baby, profit.

Attacking the Wrong Earmarks

Congress is once again talking tough about budget earmarks. House Democratic leaders announced that they are banning earmarks designed to benefit for-profit entities, while House Republicans upped the ante by calling for the abolition of the practice across the board.

Even if this latest in a long line of anti-earmark initiatives takes hold, it will have limited impact on the channeling of taxpayer dollars to favored interests. The earmark database compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense indicates that in the current fiscal year they amount to only $16 billion. And many of the 11,860 individual items cannot be linked to a specific recipient, making targeted bans meaningless.

Even the largest items linked to individual corporations—such as $19.5 million to Boeing for “Maui Space Surveillance System Operations and Research” in Hawaii; $12 million to BAE Systems for “Mk 45 Mod 5 Gun Depot Overhauls” in Kentucky; and $9.6 million to Northrop Grumman for “B-2 Advanced Tactical Data Link” in California—are drops in the bucket of $1 trillion in overall federal discretionary spending and a military budget of $530 billion.

It’s amusing to watch the posturing about these small amounts at a time when Congress may be about to endorse what can be seen as perhaps the largest earmark ever: the healthcare subsidies that will pass from lower-income Americans to private insurers in a public-option-less system. A new report from the Congressional Budget Office estimates that premium and cost-sharing subsidies under the current (pre-reconciliation) Senate version of the bill would cost $337 billion over the next decade. The TARP bailout was bigger, but in that case the taxpayers are recouping much of the outlay.

Healthcare is not the only example of how reform gets built on corporate handouts. The climate bill that passed the House last June (and got stalled in the Senate) would have essentially given away many of the emission allowances for the cap and trade system rather than requiring corporate polluters to pay in full for their greenhouse gas output.

Corporate subsidies are also at the heart of the job-creation initiatives making their way through Congress. Most Democrats have embraced the Republican notion that the best way to increase employment is to decrease business taxes. The same goes for federal efforts to promote renewable energy. At the center of the green jobs initiatives in the Recovery Act were corporate tax breaks such as the $2.3 billion Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit, which the Obama Administration would like to expand by $5 billion. The Administration also wants to give $8 billion in loan guarantees to the Southern Company to build a nuke in Georgia.

In addition to the direct contracts and tax breaks, corporate America is also in effect being subsidized by the unwillingness of much of Congress to tighten regulation of business, even in cases of reckless behavior. The delay and dilution that have characterized financial reform are worth billions to the banks. The moves to exempt sectors such as payday lenders from federal oversight is an enormous boon to those businesses.

Healthcare reform, climate-crisis mitigation, job creation, renewable energy development and financial reform are all laudable goals, but it is frustrating that they are all being pursued in ways that often reward the same large corporations that created many of the problems these initiatives are meant to address. And it is mind-boggling that the critics of this business-friendly agenda repeatedly denounce it as socialistic.

Democrats should spend less time posturing on earmarks and more time trying to figure out how they can fix what’s wrong with the country without giving away the store to big business.

ARRA as a Corporate Rescue Plan

A war of words is raging over the impact of the Obama Administration’s $787 billion stimulus program, which is now one-year old. Conservative members of Congress are mounting a relentless assault on what they see as an abject failure, even as many of them unabashedly promote and at least implicitly take credit for individual American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) projects in their home districts.

Meanwhile, the office of Vice President Joe Biden has issued a report insisting that ARRA has created or saved 2 million jobs and has brought many states back from the brink of fiscal disaster. The stimulus effort, Biden insists, “is going well.”

The debate boils down to an age-old disagreement between those opposed to allegedly wasteful social spending and those who believe government has to reinforce the social safety net during a time of economic distress.

Both sides are ignoring the fact that ARRA, to a significant degree, is a rescue plan not just for unemployed workers and struggling state governments, but also for parts of corporate America. This goes far beyond the roughly $50 billion in business tax breaks that Republicans last year insisted be part of the plan.

The Recovery Act represents a big step in the direction of what was once called industrial policy. Billions of ARRA dollars are being used by the federal government to encourage the development of new industries in areas such as renewable energy and health information technology that are seen as the foundation of future economic growth. Billions more are being spent on traditional procurement contracts to boost private-sector activity.

Here are some examples of larger injections of ARRA funds going directly to the corporate sector:

ADVANCED ENERGY MANUFACTURING TAX CREDITS

Hemlock Semiconductor, a joint venture of Dow Corning (itself a joint venture of Dow Chemical and Corning Inc.) and two Japanese companies: $141 million for the production in Michigan of polycrystalline silicon used in solar panels.

Wacker Polysilicon North America LLC, a subsidiary of the German chemical company Wacker Chemie: $128 million for a plant in Tennessee that will produce polysilicon for solar cells.

United Technologies Corporation, the big military contractor: $110 million for new equipment at its Pratt & Whitney plants to help produce more energy-efficient jet engines.

Alstom, the big French power and transportation equipment firm: $63 million for a Tennessee facility that will produce the world’s largest steam turbines for nuclear power plants.

GRANTS FOR DEVELOPMENT OF ADVANCED BATTERIES FOR ELECTRIC VEHICLES

Johnson Controls: $299 million for work on nickel-cobalt-metal battery cells

A123 Systems Inc.: $249 million for work on nano-iron phosphate cathode powder and electrode coatings.

General Motors: $105 million for production of high-volume battery packs for the GM Volt.

“CLEAN” COAL POWER INITIATIVE

American Electric Power Company: $334 million for the development of a chilled ammonia process to capture CO2 at a power plant in West Virginia.

Southern Company Services: $295 million for the retrofitting of a CO2 capture installation at a coal-fired power plant in Alabama.

BROADBAND EXPANSION

ION HoldCo LLC, a partnership led by Sovernet Communications: a $39 million grant to expand fiber-optic broadband in rural areas of upstate New York.

Biddeford Internet Corp. (dba GWI): a $25 million grant to extend a fiber-optic network to rural and disadvantaged parts of Maine.

ENERGY LOAN GUARANTEES

Solyndra Inc.: a $535 million loan guarantee to support the construction of a commercial-scale manufacturing facility for cylindrical solar photovoltaic panels.

PROCUREMENT CONTRACTS

Lockheed Martin: $165 million to work on the crew vehicle for NASA’s Project Orion.

Clark Construction Group: $152 million to design and build a new headquarters for the U.S. Coast Guard in Washington, DC.

General Motors: $104 million to supply light trucks, station wagons and alternative fuel vehicles to the General Services Administration.

GlaxoSmithKline: $62 million from the Department of Health and Human Services to do research on the H1N1 flu vaccine.

To this list can be added the thousands of contracts that states have awarded to private companies to carry out ARRA-funded activities such as highway repair, school construction and environmental remediation.

It is surprising that there has been so little debate on the relative merits of all these projects and programs – as well as on the wisdom of providing direct subsidies to profit-making entities. Are these grants, contracts, tax credits and loan guarantees a smart investment in the future or nothing more than business boondoggles?

With a significant portion of the Recovery Act going to aid corporations, we also have a right to ask why they are not creating more jobs with the taxpayer funds they have received. It would also be helpful to know – though the limitations of ARRA data collection make this difficult – how good are the jobs that have been created (in terms of wages and benefits) and whether those jobs are being equitably distributed among different portions of the population.

If we are ever going to reach any meaningful conclusions about the whole stimulus endeavor, we’ve got to go beyond tired debates about Big Government versus the Free Market. Like the bailout of the banks and the auto companies, ARRA is changing the relationship between the public and private sectors. Now we need to know whether the new arrangement is working and who is reaping the benefits.

Toyota to California: Drop Dead

nummiThe U.S. market, especially in states such as California, has played a major role in Toyota’s ascent to the top of the global automobile industry. Now the company is showing its appreciation by announcing plans to put nearly 5,000 people out of work in the San Francisco Bay Area by closing its New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) operation. The move came shortly after the new federally subsidized General Motors decided to exit what had been a 25-year joint venture between the two companies.

If Toyota ignores the pleas of California public officials and proceeds with the shutdown, the closing would represent a sharp break with the company’s paternalistic traditions. “It’s as if a long-held doctrine at Toyota – that it doesn’t shut down factories and it doesn’t fire workers – has crumbled,” a Japanese auto analyst told the New York Times. “Some would say this is a new era for Toyota.”

To be accurate, Toyota’s paternalism has not extended to the contingent workers it has employed at home and in the United States, and earlier this year it used voluntary buyouts to thin the ranks of regular workers at various U.S. plants.

Conditions are admittedly tough for Toyota. It posted its first annual loss in half a century for the fiscal year ending in March amid the sharp economic downturn. Yet it cannot be an accident that the only one of the company’s ten U.S. manufacturing plants to be put on the chopping block is the one where the workers are unionized.

Toyota, like other foreign automakers, has made sure to keep its U.S. operations non-union. NUMMI was a special case. It was created at a time when GM thought it needed to learn the secrets of Japanese auto production, Toyota was looking for ways to increase its U.S. market share without inflaming anti-import sentiments, and the United Auto Workers union was willing to experiment with new work rules that raised productivity amid rising industry layoffs.

The UAW took a lot of grief for its “jointness” arrangement at NUMMI, where the intensified pace of production was denounced by critics as “management by stress.” The contracts negotiated by the UAW have forced workers to earn a portion of their pay in the form of production bonuses. Earlier this year, the U.S. Labor Department ordered NUMMI to pay its workers an additional $862,000 because the company had miscalculated the bonuses for 2008 (Labor Relations Week, 6/25/09).

Despite the extent to which the UAW and NUMMI workers bowed to Toyota’s way of doing business, the company did not hesitate to shut down the operation once GM was out of the picture. Toyota has apparently given little thought to the impact of the closing on California’s economy amid the recession and the state’s fiscal crisis, which was resolved only by enacting cruel cuts in education and other public services. Instead, it is complaining about labor costs at NUMMI compared to its non-union plants in places such as Kentucky.

Not long ago Bloomberg reported that Toyota was considering using the NUMMI plant to produce its popular Prius. That would be appropriate, given the hybrid’s popularity in California. But the company quickly quashed that rumor and insisted that instead it would add Prius capacity at its planned plant in Mississippi once the market begins to recover. The Mississippi facility is slated to receive some $300 million in state economic development subsidies and, of course, will be run without a union.

Despite all that California has done for Toyota, the company’s message to the Golden State is: drop dead.

Volkswagen Test Drives New American Worker

It took 20 years but Volkswagen is finally going to try making cars in the United States again. Today the German automaker announced plans to invest $1 billion on a production facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee that will turn out vehicles for the North American market. The move is seen as the only way the company can, given the strong euro, hope to increase its meager U.S. market share.

The initial coverage of the announcement I saw did not mention the circumstances under which VW abandoned its previous U.S. manufacturing initiative. In April 1978 the company opened an assembly plant in Pennsylvania to produce its Rabbit model. A few months later, the workers, represented by a newly formed local of the United Auto Workers, shocked the company—as well as their parent union—by staging a wildcat strike to protest the fact that they were being paid less than their counterparts at the plants owned by the Big Three. Stopping production of the Rabbit, the workers chanted “No Money, No Bunny.”

The workers eventually returned to work, but labor relations at the plant remained tense as the UAW, compelled by members of the local, pressured the company to narrow the wage gap. VW was also confronted with a lawsuit charging that it discriminated against black employees. Finally, in 1988, VW gave up and closed the plant.

It appears that VW is being more cautious this time. It has followed in the footsteps of other foreign automakers that have located their U.S. plants in Southern right-to-work states or other areas with low union density. Thus is Toyota in states such as Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi; Nissan in Tennessee and Mississippi; BMW in South Carolina; Mercedes in Alabama; Kia in Georgia; and Hyundai in Alabama. The scarcity of unions may be the real commonality that Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen had in mind when he said today that VW chose his state because of “shared values.”

The Southern states have rewarded foreign car companies not only with non-union labor but also with lavish economic development subsidies—in many cases more than $100 million per plant. Volkswagen’s package from Tennessee is still being negotiated. Gov. Bredesen today said only that the deal is “complicated,” which should probably be taken as code for “extravagant.”

Government giveaways and docile labor: Volkswagen may not have had it so good since the era when the People’s Car was born.

Republicans’ Offshore Drilling Plan Would Expand Dysfunctional System

The response to the politically opportunistic call by the Bush Administration and John McCain to expand offshore oil drilling is being framed primarily in environmental terms. The drilling, which would do nothing in the short term to address soaring gasoline prices, would indeed create serious risks for the coastlines of Florida and California and would worsen global warming.

Yet there is another compelling reason to oppose the plan: the federal system of offshore leasing has been characterized by gross mismanagement that has allowed big oil companies to avoid paying billions of dollars in royalties. There is no reason to doubt that an expansion of drilling leases would bring more of the same.

For those who missed this particular scandal, here is some background. Commercial offshore oil drilling was pioneered in the late 1940s by Kerr-McGee Corp. While little thought was given to environmental issues at the time, there were disputes between the federal government and coastal states over which should control the leasing process. The 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act gave the states control over the first three miles (more for Texas and the Gulf Coast of Florida), and the feds took over after that up to the 200-mile territorial limit.

There wasn’t much controversy over offshore drilling until 1969, when an undersea well off the coast of Santa Barbara, California suffered a blowout and leaked 200,000 gallons of oil that contaminated 35 miles of coastline. This led to state and federal restrictions on offshore drilling in new areas. Periodically over the past 30 years, the oil & gas industry and its allies in Congress have tried to ease the limits but were shot down.

Defeated in its effort to get access to more offshore areas, the industry sought to make its existing drilling more profitable by pressing for reductions in the royalties it had to pay the federal government through the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS). In the mid-1990s, when energy prices were relatively low (oil was at about $16 a gallon barrel), Congress gave in to industry pressure and passed legislation in 1995 providing “royalty relief.”

The law contained safeguards to prevent a windfall for drilling companies by terminating the relief when oil prices rose above a certain level, but Clinton Administration officials failed to include those provisions in some 1,000 deepwater leases it signed in 1998 and 1999.

That oversight would come to haunt the federal government. As oil prices rose in 2004 to the point at which royalty relief should have ended on those leases, the cost to the Treasury in lost revenue rose to billions of dollars. Once the situation became publicly known, thanks to reporting by Edmund Andrews of the New York Times, some oil companies agreed to renegotiate the leases, while others such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron refused.

Complicating the situation, Kerr-McGee (now part of Anadarko Petroleum) later brought a legal challenge against the safeguards, making the dubious argument that Congress never intended to give MMS the authority to impose them. Last year the drillers received a favorable ruling in the case, prompting the Government Accountability Office to estimate recently that, if the decision is upheld, the loss of revenue from leases signed from 1996 through 2000 could be as high as $53 billion.

The federal government is also likely being cheated on leases signed after 2000. In 2006, several MMS auditors publicly charged that they had been pressured by their superiors to terminate investigations of underreporting of royalties related to leases not subject to royalty relief.

This is the dysfunctional system that the Republicans want to expand. One is tempted to ask: Is this really about increasing oil supplies—or creating another giveaway for Big Oil?

The South or the Global South? – BMW in South Carolina

The overall U.S. economy may be headed for the crapper, but today there were celebrations in South Carolina after BMW announced plans to invest an additional $750 million at its auto assembly plant in Spartanburg County and add 500 new jobs.

These days, any American job creation, especially in manufacturing, is going to be seen as good news. But BMW’s announcement cannot be seen as a vote of confidence in the vitality of the U.S. economy, Instead, it seems to be ploy to take advantage of the cheap dollar—and more importantly, cheap labor. Manufacturing workers in South Carolina earn only about one third of what autoworkers are paid in Germany, where BMW is simultaneously cutting employment by more than 7 percent.

Today BMW officials were praising South Carolina’s distribution infrastructure, but what they were really lauding was the anti-union climate in the state, where only 5.4 percent of manufacturing workers (and none at BMW) are represented by union contracts. Cheap labor and weak or non-existent unions: the U.S. South is looking more like the Global South all the time.

Another similarity is compliant government. Ever since the early 1990s, when BMW chose South Carolina as the location of its U.S. assembly operation, the state has been more than accommodating. The German company was given some $150 million in tax breaks and other subsidies in connection with its initial investment, and its subsequent expansions have been rewarded with many millions more in giveaways. BMW said today it may yet seek job development tax credits in connection with the new expansion. The company is apparently so confident of getting what it wants that it doesn’t bother nailing down the details ahead of time. That’s [Global] Southern hospitality.