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 # 295  

 June 2000




Congressional Special Interest Politics Threatens Property Rights

by John Carlisle

 

In politics, bad laws are often passed because they are paraded as good causes.

This especially holds true for the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), legislation pending in the U.S. Senate that its supporters purport would aid the environment but is, in reality, nothing more than a pork-barrel-laden boondoggle that will inflate federal spending by $45 billion and undermine private property rights.

Approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 11, CARA would establish a $3 billion annual trust fund for 15 years by taking money generated by offshore oil production, known as Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) revenue, and funneling it to the federal government and the states ostensibly to promote conservation. Because the federal government has jurisdiction over the ocean to about 200 miles off the U.S. coasts, oil companies must pay the federal government royalties from the money it earns from oil production. The OCS royalties were intended to help states mitigate environmental damage resulting from offshore drilling and exploration. But as is often the case, the federal government shortchanged the states their fair share and diverted most of the money to the federal government's general fund. In an understandable effort to rectify this imbalance, Congressman Don Young (R-AK) and Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) introduced CARA (H.R. 701) to insure that the states get a bigger take of the OCS pie.1

Sounds fair enough. But, in a classic Washington wheel-and-deal power play, CARA was transformed from an innocuous-sounding conservation bill into another excuse for politicians to spend money on projects that have little to do with conservation and everything to do with special interest greed.

Since only six states have offshore oil drilling, the bill's sponsors threw in some pork-barrel spending to win the support of congressmen from states that have no offshore drilling. That explains the $125 million set aside in CARA for the Urban Parks and Recreation Fund. This fund would subsidize construction of baseball stadiums, soccer fields, parks, trails and other urban improvement projects. Although a small part of the CARA bill, this urban pork has generated considerable support and enthusiasm from congressmen who otherwise wouldn't care much for CARA on its own merits. Of course, the Urban Parks and Recreation Fund does absolutely nothing to advance the cause of conservation. It is so popular, however, that even Major League Baseball strongly supports CARA because it relishes the federal taxpayer subsidies that would be made available for stadium construction.2 But it is hard to find merit in federal legislation that helps billionaire baseball owners build baseball stadiums at taxpayers' expense.

Such short-term special interest considerations are blinding many CARA supporters to the bill's most serious flaw: the threat it poses to private property. The centerpiece of CARA is the $900 million that would be dedicated to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a fund that pays for federal land acquisitions. Since LWCF has been funded at about $200-$300 million in recent years, CARA would basically triple the amount of money available for federal land purchases. This is disturbing because it would significantly increase the federal and state governments' power to force private property owners to sell their land at disadvantageous prices.3 CARA supporters argue that a "willing seller" provision will prohibit government from coercing individuals into selling their land. But the "willing seller" provision is negated by the myriad of regulations, legal maneuverings and other pressure tactics government employs to force individuals to sell their land. Ray Arnett, who served as the U.S. Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks during the Reagan Administration, says that CARA "spells disaster for property owners." Arnett argues that "overzealous regulators, joined by environmental pressure groups and other extremists, will make folly of the 'willing seller' clause by harassing owners of properties targeted for acquisition and distracting potential buyers."4 Most individuals simply do not have the financial resources to hold off the federal government when it decides it wants their property.

Another fundamental problem is that CARA would greatly accelerate government land purchases even though the federal, state and local governments already own 43% of the land in the United States. Furthermore, government is not doing a good job taking care of the land it already owns. It is estimated that the federal government has a $5 billion maintenance backlog on land it currently owns, which includes much-needed repairs on trails, bridges, roads, public restrooms and employee facilities.5 Yet CARA sponsors want to reward the government's poor stewardship with money to buy even more land.

CARA just goes to show that special interest politics is an unfortunate fact of life in the nation's capital. But while CARA may mean good news to congressmen eager to bring home pork, it spells bad news for America's private property owners.




Footnotes:

1 David Ridenour, "Bill Would Fund Parks, Hockey Rinks to Rescue Oceans," National Policy Analysis No. 240, The National Center For Public Policy Research, April 1999.
2 Chuck Cushman, American Land Rights Association, "Wasteful Land Grabbing By The Government," Letter-to-the-Editor, The Washington Times, May 7, 2000.
3 Myron Ebell, Competitive Enterprise Institute, "Republican House Passes Land Grab Bill," Human Events, May 26, 2000.
4 Ray Arnett, Letter to Congress, December 18, 1999.
5 Tom Schatz, Citizens Against Government Waste, "Wasteful Land Grabbing By The Government," Letter-to-the-Editor, The Washington Times, May 7, 2000.

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John K. Carlisle is the director of The National Center for Public Policy Research's Environmental Policy Task Force. Comments may be sent to [email protected].




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