Weekly WastebasketGiving Thanks for Common SenseOccasionally, the Government Gets it Right

Last week’s Wastebasket was our tongue-in-cheek look at the many federal programs and legislative ideas that we’ve labeled “turkeys”. Bad ideas, wasteful spending, corporate welfare…you get the idea.

And although there is always plenty to criticize in our world of budget watchdoggery, we also want to acknowledge the work, decisions, and programs in the federal government for which we give thanks. Because, occasionally, the government gets it right!

First up, and probably the biggest thing to happen in Pentagon budgeting in two decades, is the abolition of the Overseas Contingency Operations account. This supposedly “off-budget” account still added to the deficit (to the tune of more than $150 billion per year at its highpoint) and also allowed the Pentagon to avoid making the tough budget decisions forced on other federal departments. We are thankful the Biden Administration heeded our argument, in our “4.6 Ideas for the Department of Defense” document prepared just for them, that this slush fund should disappear. Unfortunately, the Pentagon topline keeps climbing, but that’s a debate for next year.

Second, we’re thankful to hear of new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiatives to prioritize existing conservation program dollars toward projects with the most climate, water, and other public benefits. One new $10 million initiative within the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) will monitor and measure soil carbon and other benefits on CRP land, including trees, grasslands, and wetlands. But given the infancy of measuring carbon on agricultural lands, we’ve asked USDA to tread lightly on new proposals to pay producers and agribusinesses to sequester carbon, for so-called “carbon smart commodities.” In other words, USDA shouldn’t put the carbon cart before the horse and pay people to do things that may not have well-defined public benefits – especially when billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake. Investing in and reforming current agriculture conservation programs, however, as proposed in the reconciliation package, can deliver real benefits for the climate, farmers, and taxpayers.

We are also grateful the oil and gas reforms we have been calling for over and over again might finally become a reality. The Build Back Better Act includes several provisions that would finally update the decades-old federal oil and gas leasing system to give taxpayers a fair return. The bill would increase the century-old onshore oil and gas royalty rate from 12 percent to 18.75 percent. It also would raise rent for companies sitting on federal leases without producing, for the first time since the 1980s. Noncompetitive leasing that currently lets companies and speculators lock land away without bidding at auction will also go the way of the Dodo. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that these fossil fuel fiscal reforms in the Build Back Better Act will bring in $2.39 billion from FY2022 to FY2031.These reforms will move us closer to getting a fair return on the development of valuable resources. The reforms also include repealing the oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and updating the onshore bonding requirements, which will protect taxpayers from future liabilities associated with oil and gas drilling.

Taxpayer Turkeys to Tweet About

Taxpayers can be thankful that this week the Biden Administration issued a proposed rule aimed at protecting millions of acres of roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. In late 2020, the Trump Administration exempted the Tongass National Forest in Alaska from the national 2001 Roadless Rule, opening up millions of acres to road building and logging in the nation’s largest national forest. A big loser for taxpayers, timber sales in the Tongass bring in far less revenue than they cost to administer. From FY1980 to FY2019, timber sales in Tongass resulted in a net loss of $1.73 billion after adjusting for inflation. If the Forest Service proceeds with its planned timber sales, taxpayers could lose an additional $173 million from FY2021 to FY2025.  We are grateful that the latest action puts us back on the path to protecting our great natural carbon sinks in the Tongass and ending taxpayer-subsidized timber sales in roadless areas.

So, there you have it. A handful of things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. We’re sure you have more to add. Soon after the food has settled and the dishes are clean, we’ll be diving into the reconciliation bill again as it undergoes scrutiny and changes in the Senate, not to mention impending deadlines to address the debt ceiling and funding the government for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2022. But for now, we’ll focus on those things we’re grateful for – and the pumpkin pie.

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