Not in My Backyard

Earmarks are a way that those in Congress can control federal money to help win elections. The Department of Veterans Affairs may have the expertise but, as another earmark enters the budget, it clearly does not have the power to make controversial decisions when the interests of powerful Congressional constituents are threatened.

Generally, a federal agency is set up to do a job and is given the job of hiring the expertise necessary to accomplish its mission. And, if a federal agency makes a decision that falls within its area of expertise and enables it to get its job done, most of us could not do much to stop it even if we wanted to. But “most of us” does not include the rich and famous who live in the Los Angeles area. With enough money and influence, getting a federal agency to back off taking action it thinks is proper is just a matter of knowing the right people.

A federal agency that tries to do its job may find that it is encroaching on the wishes (or, perhaps, the scenic view) of powerful Congressional constituents. When that happens, all bets are off. With the galloping practice of using “earmarks” to define how a portion of an agency’s budget must be spent, Congress can override how an agency wants to use its resources.

An earmark is defined by the Office of Management and Budget as “funds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents Executive Branch merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to manage critical aspects of the funds allocation process.”

Through the use of earmarks, those in Congress can help ensure their re-election next time around by bragging to those in their district that they have done a good job of getting money brought back into the district. In the ethical wonderland of Congressional politics, few Congressmen want to challenge the earmark in one district because that could hurt everyone’s chances of getting sent back to Congress when the challenged Congressional rep retaliates and hurts the earmarks for the challenger’s own district.

The Department of Veterans Affairs can be a big target. There are VA facilities around the country. The VA brings in big money to many communities and spending money for veterans health care is a winning political issue. How should the VA use its resources to provide better care? The agency has expertise and experience and, presumably, generally does a good job of accomplishing a difficult mission.

The VA could use an extra $4 billion dollars for a variety of expenses. Even within a large federal agency, $4 billion is a lot of money. And the agency thinks, or at least it used to think, it may have found a way to bring that much extra into the agency’s coffers.

The West Los Angeles Medical Center is not a typical VA facility. It is 387 acres in the middle of an area with expensive real estate. It is surrounded by mansions of celebrities. According to the Wall Street Journal, much of the space is not used by the government. There are 91 buildings and 21 are partially or completely vacant. The number of veterans in the facility is expected to decline. The county also falls on the low end of the percentage veterans who live in the area.

When the VA decided to study how to best use its resources, it concluded this particular facility might be a good candidate for downsizing. Leasing out land that is not being used could bring in an extra $4 billion or so that the agency could use to, presumably, help meet its obligation to provide care for veterans.

Politics can be an exercise in creativity with little evidence of the political class ever showing evidence of embarrassment or recognition of making an ironic statement.

“There are a lot of ways to make money, but I think the worst way is to make money off of veterans,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein.

“This is not the time to say to our veterans, `You’re not important.’ That it’s more important to have a rental car agency or a movie studio here,” said Senator Barbara Boxer.

An earmark inserted in a military construction and veterans affairs bill would prevent the VA from disposing or leasing any of the extra land–presumably so that those that play the role of veterans in the movies will maintain a good view–while the money that could be used to help those returning from real combat missions in the real world will have to be satisfied with the successful efforts of California’s politicians who issue press statements about their work to protect veterans’ interests.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47