House Republican Whip Eric Cantor has a clever web based campaign called You Cut. The idea is that citizens should suggest wasteful government programs then vote on the ones they consider most deserving of cutting or elimination. The winning program-cut would then be introduced as legislation and the votes of congressmen would be recorded for all to see.
For example, this last week the winning cut was a $100 Million subsidy for sleeping car services on AMTRAK. That’s a lot of money to subsidize first class treatment including private compartments, turning down the bed, first-class food service, and complementary entertainment. The service costs AMTRAK $396 more per passenger than it collects in fares. The difference is made up by a subsidy from the U.S. Treasury, i.e., taxes.
Now who could be against elimination of this subsidy? It’s obviously a blatant waste of taxpayer’s funds. Rep. Cantor brought this proposed cut to the house floor and of course it was voted down by the usual suspects. It makes great theater, maybe good politics, too. But does it solve the real problem? No.
Mr. Cantor’s $100 million cut proposal ignores the fact that Amtrak costs the government $1.3 Billion per year (last estimate I could find). The real problem isn’t the first class subsidy, which appeals to the class envy of the voters. The real problem is the total subsidy. Why should the government run a railroad at all?
The answer to that is quite obvious when one investigates a little legislative history. In the last Amtrak authorization bill (part of the $787 Billion stimulus bill) Amtrak was instructed to improve commuter services between Washington, DC and New York, and between Washington, DC and Boston. Guess who benefits from fast subsidized train services between these cities?
In 2007 an amendment (S 257) to the Amtrak reauthorization bill was introduced in the Senate that:
-Prohibits Federal funds from being used for the operation of Amtrak train routes that have per passenger subsidies of over $200 during the first fiscal year after the date of enactment and over $100 after the fifth fiscal year of enactment.
-Requires Inspector General to submit a report that lists the new subsidy levels and states that Amtrak will terminate train routes that have per passenger subsidies above the set limits.
Of course the amendment was struck down on a party line (28-66) vote. Interestingly a few senators ducked the vote, including: Clinton (D-NY), Dodd (D-CT), Feinstein (D-CA), Kennedy (D-MA), McCain (R-AZ), and (surprise!) Obama (D-IL).
Rep. Cantor’s You Cut program is clever political theater, and it may even embarrass some Democrats and a few big-spender Republicans as well. I can’t criticize people who participate in the belief that they’re doing some good. Maybe they are. But the truth is that trimming around the edges completely misses the point that the federal government has grown so big, so intrusive, and so expensive that only a major reorientation of its major programs will fix it. Don’t just trim Amtrak, eliminate it. Don’t just trim Social Security, privatize it. Don’t just re-organize the departments of education, commerce, labor, agriculture, and energy, eliminate them and a host of unconstitutional others. The politicians are happy to have us do the edge trimming while they blithely water the greens.
I left a comment to the effect of the above paragraph on Cantor’s site, but it was tossed. Oh, well. That just proves my point. No guts, no real progress.