Congress: Corruptor of Our Youth (Services)

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The 108th Congress is back in Washington for its second and – bless you, Founding Fathers – final session.

The first session of Congress didn’t really end until late January, when Congress passed a $328 billion-dollar spending bill for fiscal 2004, which is already one-third over.

Contained therein is what now passes for federal youth policy: noncompetitive earmarks doled out with all the public policy finesse of a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Pork opponent Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) calls the bill “a living, breathing argument that this system is broken.”

The youth service field is by no means unique in its fortune (or misfortune) in receiving grants direct from Congress. Forty years ago, congressional earmarking was nonexistent. The 6,400 earmarks in the fiscal 2000 budget, says the White House Office of Management and Budget, were a threefold increase over 1995, the beginning of the Republican Party’s current reign over Congress. In 2004, Congress designated 7,900 earmarks, totaling $10.7 billion.

Requests for earmarks by members of Congress this year totaled well over 20,000. If all had been funded, the spending would have equaled the Pentagon’s budget.

When they’re not busy raising money for re-election, members of Congress are increasingly hustling earmarks from their better-positioned colleagues. And members of Congress, in turn, are being pursued by an army of lobbyists, including a battalion in the hire of various youth service-related special interests.

The Capitol Hill dance for dollars is both simple and complex.

The simple part is that states with congressional delegations that are well-positioned in the appropriations process get the big bucks. Partisan political considerations play an ever-increasing role in the earmark allocation process. So important has earmarking become that the earmark-less Rep. Ralph Hall (D-Texas) recently announced he would seek re-election as a Republican, explaining, “This year I was denied requests for district appropriations because I was a Democrat who voted against the bill” to fund the pork.

On the other hand, consider Alaska: Thanks to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), that state ranked No. 1 in earmarks in the fiscal 2003 budget, raking in $393,346,750, or $610.99 per capita. Hawaii was No. 2, with $353,842,000, thanks to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

Near the bottom is Michigan, with $13.88 per capita in earmarks. Dead last is North Carolina, getting than 10 bucks per resident.
Using a narrow definition of a youth-related earmark, the White House Task Force on Disadvantaged Youth found 304 youth program earmarks covering five federal agencies in 2003 and totaling more than $206 million. The actual total is considerably higher. Last year’s annual earmark tally by Youth Today (March 2003) found 844 youth-related earmarks, totaling $622 million. The 2004 compilation (see page 48) includes 951 noncompetitive awards, totaling $572 million.

Where does the money given to youth groups go? While members of Congress bleat about accountability and science-based evaluations, the de facto policy on Capitol Hill is, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” A reasonable estimate is that for every dollar earmarked for a non-classroom youth-serving purpose, about a dime is spent on registered paid lobbyists, Washington-based employees of national groups (ostensibly engaged in “advocacy” or “public policy”) or freelance earmark-seekers working on the clock for some public or nonprofit agency back home. The smaller the earmarks they win, the higher the percentage of the agency budget that’s eaten up by overhead. Those who get no earmarks – the majority of the supplicants – are worse off than if they hadn’t even tried, as are the youth they serve. For example, New Avenues for Youth, which aids runaways and homeless youth in Portland, Ore., won a $30,000 earmark. But – considering staff time, travel, etc. – at what price?

Consider, too, the Girl Scouts of the USA, which has more than 235,000 troops and “groups” across the nation and is led by CEO Kathy Cloninger. A flattering article in The Chicago Tribune in December 2003 describes a praiseworthy Scout program at the Southern Oaks Girls School near Kenosha, Wis., run by the state Department of Corrections. Surrounded by razor wire, 80 girls there participate in Troop 344, which is 10 years old.

Kimberlie Kelly of the local Girl Scouts is quoted as saying, “This is something unprecedented in Girl Scout history.” And just how is this historic undertaking financed? “Just like other troops,” the Tribune reports, “they survive financially by selling cookies.” Sales “brought in a record $2,361, money used to pay for the badges, $10 membership fees and supplies.” What a happy homemaker picture.

But if Troop 344 makes it on Girl Scout cookie sales, what happened to the $4.9 million the New York-based Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) received in earmarks in the previous two fiscal years? In 2003, GSUSA won a $1 million earmark for its Beyond Bars program, aimed both at girls with mothers in prison and girls in lockups. Now, says Ellen Christie-Ach, director of media services at GSUSA’s national office, some 70 troops operate in juvenile detention centers.

But some of those programs have been operating since at least 1976, well before the federal money arrived. At the Racine, Wis., Girl Scout Council, Executive Director Donna Bragg speaks warmly of the national office, but can cite only the redesign of GSUSA insignia (replacing pins with clips) as its main contribution.

GSUSA got no federal money until retired Adm. Marty Evans was hired as executive director in 1998. Since then, the GSUSA and affiliates have landed at least $10.9 million in earmarks. When Evans left in 2002 to take over the American Red Cross, she listed among her accomplishments “acquisition of millions of dollars in federal earmarks.”

Apparently the GSUSA, with a headquarters staff of 450, could use the money. In its 1999 federal tax return, GSUSA listed net assets of more than $177 million. Its latest available tax return (2001) shows net assets down by more than $35 million, which is no small amount of cookie dough. But government grants were up from $10,418 in 1998 to more than $2 million in 2001, accounting for about 3 percent of GSUSA’s annual income.

How did GSUSA win a thick slice of congressional pork? First, it set up an phantom troop of former Girl Scouts on Capitol Hill, with Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) – both on the vital Senate Appropriations Committee – as co-troop leaders.

But GSUSA was not about to settle for Girl Scout cookie sales in the halls of Congress to raise real dough. It hired the Evans Capitol Group, led by Kae Evans. Her influence-peddling shop also lobbies for NEXTEL, Hallmark Cards and the Newspaper Association of America – each of which paid the Evans Group more than the $60,000-plus paid by GSUSA in the first six months of 2003 for “matters pertaining to the funding of after-school programs.” Over the same six months, according to the reports that lobbyists must file with the Senate, GSUSA’s Washington-based vice president, Laurie Westley (annual salary: $205,000), reported spending more than $20,000 trooping around Capitol Hill.

Does all of this really matter to youth-serving agencies, large and small, many of which are struggling to stay afloat?

The recently released Final Report of the White House Task Force on Disadvantaged Youth says earmarking “weakens what should be a strong focus on proven, positive short-term and long-term results for children and youth.” An earlier task force report says the earmark process “eliminates what linkages there should be between accountability measures and funding decisions. … Earmarked programs do not receive the oversight that enables agencies to make sure they are actually helping youth.”

Actually, they receive no oversight at all. It’s one of those unwritten pacts whereby the powerless federal agencies that have the earmarks forced on them essentially tell agencies that get the money, “We’ll pretend we’re providing oversight if you pretend you’re doing the work.” Most government agencies, seeking to avoid congressional ire, don’t criticize these pet projects.
Every one of these political gifts theoretically shrinks the pot of federal money available for publicly announced, competitive awards made through a peer grant review process.

The recent White House Task Force analysis of earmarks concludes, “Very few of the major youth-related organizations with offices here in the nation’s capital complain loudly about the earmark process, since many of them have figured out how to take advantage of that process for themselves and/or their affiliates.”

There is a better way, and it has a name: the Younger Americans Act, incubating on the remote back benches of Congress. The proposed legislation would scrap the current system and send youth-service funds to local communities for their allocation to youth work. In the current spoils system, connections trump performance, and the welfare of large, national youth-serving organizations trumps the needs of the most powerless and disadvantaged youth in the nation.

The very groups that could build national support for the Younger Americans Act instead put their Capitol Hill reputations, energy and money into chasing earmarks. In talking about the act, GSUSA media service director Christie-Ach says, “In the last few years we haven’t been very active.”

By aiding and abetting Congress in corrupting the youth service, the GSUSA and its fellow national collaborators have forsaken the national interest.