Four months after governors and local officials announced stay-at-home orders, Americans continue to struggle financially and suffer from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Congress has tried to provide Americans relief and stability through the turmoil, but it has been difficult for lawmakers to part ways with their wasteful spending habits. The recently introduced Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act is replete with wasteful spending that will do nothing to protect struggling Americans. It’s time to root out these pork-barrel projects and target relief to families and business that need help the most.
Taxpayers could be forgiven for thinking that a coronavirus relief bill would, well, stick to coronavirus-related health and financial concerns. But on Capitol Hill, any spending measure inevitably morphs into a bonanza for special interests and federal agencies. The bill provides $1.8 billion for a new FBI facility and $818 million for NASA exploration, yet lawmakers fail to explain how these line-items will help curb COVID-19. And, nearly $30 billion is provided for the Department of Defense. It is highly doubtful that the novel coronavirus will be vanquished by:
- $720 million for additional C-130J aircraft;
- $686 million for additional F-35A aircraft;
- $650 million for A-10 wing replacements;
- $290 million for a space sensor laser;
- $200 million for Ground-Based Midcourse Defense;
- $66 million for hypersonic defense; and
- $39 million for cruise missile defense.
The additional $686 million for the F-35 is especially worrisome considering the horrendous track record of the aircraft. Despite all the earmarks and pork-barrel spending flowing to the program, the Pentagon is still having trouble procuring parts for the pricey jets. The Government Accountability Office notes, “personnel at F-35 squadrons are pulling parts off of other aircraft that are already unable to fly instead of waiting for new parts to be delivered through the supply chain.”
Evidently, the recently passed $740 billion Defense bill passed by the House and Senate wasn’t enough to fund the Pentagon’s many budget-busting programs. Add in the $10.5 billion in military spending authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and the Pentagon is poised to rake in roughly $780 billion in taxpayer money via recent spending bills. In other words, each American household is being asked to spend more than $6,000 to further pad the Pentagon’s pockets.
Unfortunately, wasteful spending in the HEALS Act isn’t limited to Pentagon boondoggles. There’s roughly $20 billion in the bill for farm subsidies, ensuring that large, politically connected agribusinesses will continue to be protected from competition. The aid is designed to cast a wide net, benefiting “producers, growers, and processors of specialty crops, non-specialty crops, dairy, livestock and poultry.” And if the past is any guide, this broad-based “relief” will wind up benefiting the largest, wealthiest farms.
Heritage Foundation scholar Daren Bakst notes, “Large-scale farms (large and very large family farms) accounted for just 2.9 percent of all farms yet received over a third of the commodity payments (35 percent) and almost half of the crop insurance indemnities (46 percent).” These payments and subsidies from the federal government are nothing new, nor is the regressive redistribution that inevitably follows. There’s nothing wrong with helping struggling businesses, but beneficiaries should be small operations with a legitimate fear of going under.
Despite all of this waste and poor targeting, there’s plenty to like about the HEALS Act. The “sequel” to the Paycheck Protection Program limits eligibility to businesses with fewer than 300 employees (compared to the original threshold of 500 employees). In addition, the new, improved PPP program ensures that recipients have seen at least a 50 percent reduction in gross revenues. These limitations are critical in ensuring that PPP funds go to those who truly need them instead of well-heeled corporations.
But unless lawmakers get serious about rooting out waste in COVID-19 relief legislation, struggling taxpayers will be buried under a mountain of debt. With the deficit this year alone approaching $4 trillion, the federal government must properly target aid spending. Increased waste and red ink will only increase suffering at the worst possible time.
Ross Marchand is vice president of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.