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Short leash on discretionary grants

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted June 21, 2004

The money that you worked long and hard to earn is too often treated by Congress as if it were Monopoly money. Millions, even billions, of dollars are appropriated to pay for pet programs at the domestic level that have little reason for existence other than it is something some powerful members of Congress and the Executive Branch wished it so. But how carefully are the appropriations monitored to ensure the Executive Branch is fulfilling the wishes of Congress in spending the money and doing so wisely?

Not enough.

Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) has made it a point to urge that Congress scrutinize the Executive Branch to ensure the will of Congress is fulfilled.

Senator Grassley told the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation dinner earlier this year: Taxpayers deserve transparency because they're financing the government...One of the responsibilities the Constitution gives Congress is oversight of the Executive Branch. Congress needs to do a lot more oversight. Year after year, we give power to the federal bureaucracy. We seldom recoup any. That makes our Constitutional check on the Executive Branch very, very important.

Senator Grassley went on to make a point that the Executive Branch and the bureaucracy that administers the Federal agencies and programs too often operate as if they were above scrutiny. "It doesn't matter if the President is a Republican or a Democrat. Too often, government officials think their own agency or their administration is an end unto itself."

Senator Grassley and his staff have performed the necessary digging to root out contractor fraud and the misuse of credit cards at the Department of Defense.

This has not always made Senator Grassley popular, even with some conservatives, but his constituents respect him and so do many conservatives because he is someone who not only talks about cutting waste, fraud and abuse within government -- no matter which party holds the executive branch -- but someone who actually does something about it. In fact, Senator Grassley recalls that some of his colleagues on the other side of the aisle were willing to stand by him when he challenged the practices of the executive branch when his party was in power only to suddenly become missing persons when the same scrutinizing of the executive branch was taking place during the Clinton Era.

Other legislators understand that Congress has a duty to scrutinize the actions of the executive branch, including the career bureaucrats in agencies who really have become the fourth branch of government.

Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has been leading an investigation of the discretionary grant program at the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA grant process has drawn criticism over the years even from within the agency, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Government Accounting Office. Still, the grants kept on being doled out with little scrutiny or oversight. As Senator Inhofe stated a few months ago during a hearing of his committee, the EPA grants management "is seemingly a revolving door of EPA IG [Inspector General] audits and GAO reports, congressional hearings, and new EPA policies in response. Even with this constant cycle of criticism, hearings, and new policies; the GAO reported late last year that the EPA continues to demonstrate the same persistent problems in grants management."

Senator Inhofe requested that EPA provide a listing of the grants that it had made in fiscal year 2003, and the EPA's new Administrator, Mike Leavitt, formerly the Governor of Utah, complied with the deadline. Since then, the staff of the Environment and Public Works Committee has been delving deep into the EPA's own process in deciding how to award the grants and exercising oversight over them. The results are eye opening, to say the least, because the grants were being given to ideological environmental advocacy organizations with few strings attached. The nature of the grants coupled with weak or essentially non-existent oversight was literally a license for EPA project managers to give money to whatever groups they wished, and for the beneficiaries to do whatever they wanted with the money.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, for instance, received a $390,000 grant to write a report on energy efficient buildings in Russia, a task most true-blue American citizens would expect to be better handled by Russia's own version of the EPA.

Then, there is the $50,000 grant given to the Children's Environmental Health Network in 2002 to build a website that would provide information on children's health. That website was not developed. However, the CEHN did take it upon itself to establish a website that grades the Bush Administration on its efforts to fulfill the CEHN wish list on children's health issues.

Then, there is the $100,000 grant given in 2002-2003 to the World Wildlife Fund, an organization on the left of the environmental movement, to examine climate change.

Now, the staff of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee is starting to interview the EPA's project officers as they delve deeper into the grant-making process. For too long, the grant-making officers at the EPA appear to have failed to work in our true best interest. They appear to have treated taxpayer money as if it was their own personal checkbook to send donations to their favorite environmental advocacy organizations. Indeed, the lack of oversight over the execution of the grants is cause for concern given that the awards appear to have been used to subsidize some of the lobbying efforts of these organizations.

Senator Inhofe is intent on ensuring the EPA starts working in the public's interest -- not in the interest of the left-wing environmental lobby. He intends to apply continuing pressure on the EPA to exercise strong oversight in the awarding and carrying out of discretionary grants to ensure they are not a give-away to environmental lobbying groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. Naturally, his ability to do so depends on the results of the November elections and whether the GOP retains control of the U.S. Senate.

It's all well and good that the corruption pervading the EPA grant-making process is being uprooted. The news media has not devoted much attention to this important issue. Furthermore, it may only be evidence of a much larger problem. The EPA with its $719 million appropriation in fiscal year 2003 is certainly not the biggest grant-giver among federal agencies. The Department of Health and Human Services doles out over $35 billion in discretionary grants; the Department of Agriculture ladles out over $7 billion in discretionary grants. More oversight needs to be exerted over how these grants are awarded and whether they are even truly necessary.

Remember: this is your money that Congress is appropriating and the bureaucrats are spending. It deserves to be spent wisely. For too long, the EPA bureaucrats thought they could do whatever they want and not pay a price because "guess who" gets stuck with the bill. What has been happening is an outrage! Now, Senator Inhofe is determined to put discretionary grant-giving by bureaucrats on a very, very short leash. That's great for the EPA! But what about the rest of government?

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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