Peter Roff

In Washington, tax dollars get tossed around like Monopoly money, especially in times of crisis when politicians start talking about the need to expand the social safety net.

During the worst parts of the pandemic, the political crowd couldn’t act fast enough to get money out the door, but they gave little to no thought about where it might end up. That’s a problem. We now know that close to $100 billion in emergency relief meant for those thrown out of work by the lockdowns ended up in the pockets of fraudsters.

Unfortunately, that’s not the exception that proves the rule — it’s the rule. Congressmen, senators, even presidents use our tax dollars to buy votes from favored constituencies, often without considering the effect that spending will have. Call them the unintended consequences of the government’s largess, which often goes unexplored.

Congressional inquiries are generally ineffectual. The bureaucrats won’t tell Congress about their failures, which the politicians who funded them are happy to have covered up. But that’s not the sole reason tax dollars are wasted. The way Washington spends your money is problematic from the start.

The law that governs federal spending, in place since 1974, has never worked the way the American people were promised it would. Unless you believe its real purpose was to allow for maximum spending with minimum accountability. Programs that should be considered carefully are routinely dropped into huge, last-minute, omnibus spending packages that members have not read in their entirety.

Consider the Build Back Better legislation that’s just run aground on Capitol Hill because West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said he wouldn’t vote for it. It’s an ambitious program, bigger than anything we’ve seen since Lyndon Johnson’s call for a “Great Society” increased the size and scope of the federal government back in the 1960s.

As it passed the House of Representatives in mid-November, Build Back Better would have been harmful rather than helpful to the economic security of half the families on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Take the provisions that would provide childcare assistance, a fancy way of saying greater government control and bigger subsides. Casey B. Mulligan, a highly respected economist at the prestigious University of Chicago, suggests they in fact would have made childcare, as it exists and works well now, unaffordable for millions of working families.

Mulligan’s study found that the provisions in Build Back Better would have doubled the cost for families needing childcare who did not qualify for its subsidies.

“For a family with an infant and a four-year-old, the childcare expense would rise by $27,000,” Mulligan wrote if the government determined they were not eligible for the subsidies. In 2022, “half of the families currently using nonparental childcare” would be affected.

Despite this, the Biden plan to subsidize childcare was praised as being a compassionate attempt to help working families — particularly working mothers — balance the responsibilities of child-rearing against the need to earn a living. Few of the commentators who opined favorably on the supposed upside of the issue had much if anything to say about the problems the new program would create for those who suddenly found it twice as expensive to have someone look after their kids while they were at work.

We’ve been down this road before. Obamacare, which was supposed to make healthcare more affordable, surprised a lot of people who backed it until their premiums went up and their plans, which the president repeatedly promised they could keep if they liked them, were canceled.

It’s a good thing Manchin killed the bill and advised his Democratic colleagues to start over again. It was crafted poorly by people who put it together to address political rather than economic or social concerns, something that is often the case with major pieces of legislation these days.

 
 

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— Peter Roff is a former UPI and U.S. News & World Report columnist who is affiliated with several Washington-D.C.-based public policy organizations. Email: RoffColumns@gmail.com .