On May 11 the House of Representatives voted 315 to 102 to pass the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), which now goes to the Senate for consideration. If this bill is enacted, it will show the US Congress at its worst.
Few of the legislators voting for CARA knew or cared about its specific provisions. It was enough for them to know that the bill would have plenty of money for their home constituents and would be read as a “pro-environmental” vote. Supported by both the Chairman and ranking minority members of the House Resources Committee (Republican Don Young of Alaska and Democrat George Miller of California), it could also be touted as “bipartisan” - signaling a responsiveness to public wishes for a more “pragmatic” and less “ideological” Congress. Altogether, CARA appeared to be a no-lose vote.
Studied more closely, however, CARA is an act of gross legislative irresponsibility that should be interred as soon as possible. This legislation throws money at the states according to broad distribution formulas that take little account of individual state and local circumstances. Nevada, for example, with 80 percent of its land already in federal ownership, would receive a new $13 million per year for further government land acquisitions. It is not only a formula for bad government, but a marvelous license for the future distribution of Congressional pork on a grand scale.
Although Title II, which expands federal land acquisition, has been the focus of public criticism of CARA, it is not the most egregious part of the bill. That honor is reserved for Title I which would mandate that a full $1 billion be distributed every year to “coastal states” in order to mitigate the “impacts” of the federal program for oil and gas leasing on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). Some of the provisions of Title I are so bizarre that they might be regarded as a joke, if not for the fact that the House has just passed them by a wide margin.
In order to spread the money around, Michigan - not coincidentally the home state of Democratic Rep. John Dingell, an early leading sponsor of CARA - and other Great Lake states are defined as coastal for the purposes of the legislation. There has never been a federal oil and gas lease offered for sale in the Great Lakes and probably never will be. Indeed, today only six states - Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas - have any significant federal oil and gas development off their coastlines.
Yet, CARA would distribute money under Title I for OCS leasing “impact assistance and coastal conservation” to fully 30 states. The logic of this distribution defies any rational understanding. According to estimates of the House Resources Committee, New York State would get $40 million per year while Maine with its long and ecologically sensitive coastline would get $15 million. Illinois would receive $13 million while Georgia with a long stretch of Atlantic coastline would get $7 million. Pennsylvania - which borders on a small section of Lake Erie - would receive $7 million while Oregon would receive $6 million. The biggest winners would be Alaska ($89 million per year), California ($67 million), Florida ($69 million), Louisiana ($285 million), Mississippi ($61 million), and Texas ($131 million).
If coastal impacts or any other rational considerations offer no explanation, there is of course a simple basis for this funding pattern. Congress has its own de facto distribution formula. As in so many cases, CARA allocates taxpayer money in proportion to political power. Alaskans chair both the House Resources committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The Majority Leader, Trent Lott, is from Mississippi. All of them are Republicans, yet they know that bipartisan support will be needed to reap the windfalls CARA would provide for their states. Thus, Louisiana gets the biggest payments and also happens to have two key Democratic Senators who can be counted on for strong support. For the House of Representatives, it is politically necessary to spread the money more widely to the states with the largest populations - the reason that New York State gets so much more money than Maine.
That is the way the Congress too often works. Pay off enough members, CARA is telling us, and it seems that you can get virtually anything passed.
The total funding for CARA as a whole - $3 billion a year for all of its eight Titles - would come from the $4 billion (or more, depending on the price of oil) per year in royalties now being received from federal OCS oil and gas tracts. This money would be removed off budget so that it would no longer be subject to the normal give and take of the appropriations process. No balancing of federal priorities would occur.
On the whole, CARA would simply shower large amounts of money - with only the flimsiest of excuses - on politically influential recipients. Yet, the Clinton administration - always ready to follow the political winds - is offering support. The remaining hope is the Senate where low-population states like Wyoming and Utah benefit much less from CARA and have more political clout there than in the House.
In the new era of budget surpluses, it was inevitable that the prospect of “free money” would prove too great a temptation for most members of Congress to resist. If CARA becomes law, Congress will be acting more like an alcoholic finding a new bottle than any semblance of responsible legislating.
Robert H. Nelson is a professor in the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland and senior fellow at CEI. From 1975 to 1993 he worked in the Office of Policy Analysis of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior.