Are Bedbugs Really a Federal Issue?
The front page of last Sunday's Pilot contained a couple of stories that are interesting in the context of the current debate about the size and role of government.
First, there was the news that Robbins is apparently going to get its hand in the stimulus cookie jar and pull out a new fire station.
Well, I suppose Robbins is as good a place as any to spew federal pork, and you certainly can't fault the good folks there for pulling up a seat at the table, but the fact remains that there are hundreds of fire stations, bike paths, local museums, traffic lights, and who knows what else, all local projects, being paid for with tax dollars sent to Washington and redistributed after a very heavy federal management fee has been extracted.
The other story is a bit more exotic and unlikely. It seems that Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina's 1st Congressional District introduced the Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite Act of 2009 last year. This act called for spending $50 million to fund inspection and extermination of bedbugs. Thus far, it remains buried in committee.
To my knowledge, I have never seen a bedbug. I'm sure they must be a serious nuisance. I would not want bedbugs in my bed. No doubt some of Butterfield's constituents have a real bedbug problem. However, the republic has survived something over 200 bedbug-ridden years without federal intervention. I'm pretty sure that when the founders provided that Congress should "promote the general welfare," they were not contemplating bedbugs.
At least a fire station will serve an obvious and legitimate purpose. Wasting time in Congress even thinking about bedbugs is somewhere beyond ridiculous.
There are a lot of reasons the federal government has usurped what were originally - and, I would argue, were intended to be - local responsibilities and functions.
First and foremost, it has done so because it can.
The Supreme Court has, more often than not, come down on the side of expanded federal reach, most frequently by stretching the commerce clause to the breaking point. Thus we have innumerable federal programs providing funding to states and localities contingent on some kind of performance requirement or restriction and/or matching funds.
It has also assumed local functions because, so far, it has had a virtually unrestricted ability to operate at a deficit, something local governments are prohibited from doing. Local governments have been complicit in their eagerness to accept this money without any apparent recognition that their citizens will still be liable for the debt it creates at the federal level.
It is in the nature of any bureaucracy to seek to expand its size and power, and very few bureaucracies have had a life-span as long as our federal government's in which to do so. With the funding available to it through the income tax and the ability to borrow, it has put its tentacles deep into every crevice of American life.
Our massive underfunded entitlements programs likewise arose from the ability to tax and borrow, as well as from some combination of a genuine desire, on one hand, to help people, and on the other, to purchase their votes.
It's a pretty good bet that if Robbins could simply have raised the money for the fire station locally without jumping through whatever hoops were required to get federal funding, it could be built in less time and for less money. But, like everyone else, the people of Robbins feel entitled to see some return on their dollars sent northward.
This mentality will be broken, if at all, when the federal government can no longer sell bonds and freely distribute the proceeds. It seems as if that day should have arrived by now, but it has not.
Meanwhile, Congress in its wisdom, has, so far at least, chosen not to spend $50 million chasing bedbugs.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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