TCS Daily

Taxpayer rip-off in progress

By James Freeman - April 3, 2000 12:00 AM

By the time you hear about some Federal scheme to waste your tax dollars, it's usually too late to do anything about it. Often, the media starts covering a government boondoggle only after your money is misspent, and it's an obvious "Fleecing of America."

So it gives me great pleasure to report that you can stop one of these stinkers right now - before it starts. The full House of Representatives will soon be considering HR 3615, the "Rural Local Broadcast Signal Act."

This bill would put you on the hook for loans made to providers of local TV programming via satellite. Why on earth, in this age of media abundance and a global Internet, we need to subsidize people to deliver more television programming is beyond me. But the House Telecom Subcommittee went right ahead and approved this monstrosity in a recent meeting. So you could soon be backing $1 billion in loans for satellite service operators.

Many lawmakers actually wanted to throw more of your money at this non-problem, but Rep. Steve Largent (R-OK) convinced them to limit it to a billion - for now. History suggests that the program will grow over time, and that you will indeed be called upon to cover the loans. The program will be managed by the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS), which has a sterling record in this area. So sterling in fact that you recently had to eat a $5 billion tab to write off bad debt in the RUS portfolio.

We shouldn't just blame the bureaucrats, though. The Ag Department has to implement the legislation passed by Congress. If Congress tells them to make a lot of stupid loans, that's what they have to do. And in recent hearings, Agriculture officials actually tried to warn House members of the risks involved in the satellite scheme.

So why is Congress still considering putting us all on the hook for more bad loans? This isn't a partisan issue. The plan has strong supporters on both sides of the aisle. The plan also has a strange item buried deep in the language of the bill. Under the lending requirements, no single guaranteed loan can amount to more than $100 million, except for one loan, which can be up to $625 million. Why do I get the feeling that someone on Capitol Hill already knows exactly which borrower is going to get that $625 mil? I think we have a right to know who that borrower is.

Looking at the big picture, it's not just about the money we're going to lose. Why does government want to subsidize the provision of more television programming? It's hard to think of a more unworthy cause. If anything, we should be paying people not to produce more television, or rewarding kids for playing outside and reading books. Clearly, the government shouldn't be subsidizing people to create more or less TV, but if Congress is going to get involved, I think most of us would vote for less.

Supporters of the bill talk about access to more local TV programming as an economic development tool - farmers need crop and weather reports. To argue for more TV as a boon to business productivity is a joke. Print, radio and the Internet are all more efficient at delivering information. TV is about entertainment, and this bill is about throwing your money away. Congress should vote it down.

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