Here’s how we save food stamps.
A House committee rebuffed Democratic efforts Wednesday to keep the $80bn-a-year food stamp programme whole, as debate on the farm bill turned into a theological discourse on helping the poor.
The House bill would cut about $2.5bn a year – or a little more than 3% – from the food stamp programme, which is used by 1 in 7 Americans.
The committee rejected an amendment by Democrats to strike the cuts 27-17, keeping them in the bill.
The legislation would achieve the cuts partly by eliminating an eligibility category that mandates automatic food stamp benefits when people sign up for certain other programmes. It would also save dollars by targeting states that give people who don’t have heating bills very small amounts of heating assistance so they can automatically qualify for higher food stamp benefits.
We eliminate the handouts to contractors for ripping off those same food stamp recipients.
Since 2001, U.S. taxpayers have effectively shipped hundreds of billions of dollars out of the country to build and maintain an enormous military presence abroad, while major Pentagon contractors and a select group of politicians, lobbyists, and other friends have benefited mightily.
The problem is, it’s remarkably difficult to figure out who’s been benefiting from all the taxpayer money. The government doesn’t bother to compile such information. This meant I had to pick through hundreds of thousands of contracts and research scores of companies in countries worldwide.
I began with publicly available government contract data and followed a methodology for tracking funds used by the Commission on Wartime Contracting. This allowed me to compile a list of every Pentagon contract with a “place of performance” — that is, the country where most of a contract’s work is performed — outside the United States since the start of the Afghan war (fiscal year 2002).
There were 1.7 million of them.
Scrolling through 1.7 million spreadsheet rows, one for each contract, offered a dizzying feel for the immensity of the Pentagon’s activities and the money spent globally. Generally, the companies winning the largest contracts have been doing one (or more) of four things: building bases, running bases, providing security for bases, and delivering fuel to bases. Among those 1.7 million contracts, there was one for $43 for sand in South Korea and another for a $1.7 million fitness center in Honduras. There was the $23,000 for sports drinks in Kuwait, $53 million in base support services in Afghanistan, and everything from $73 in pens to $301 million for U.S. Army industrial supplies in Iraq.
Cheek by jowl, I found the most basic services, the most banal purchases, and the most ominous acquisitions, including concrete sidewalks, a traffic light system, diesel fuel, insect fogger, shower heads, black toner, a 59” desk, unskilled laborers, chaplain supplies, linen for “distinguished visitor” rooms, easy chairs, gym equipment, flamenco dancers, the rental of six sedans, phone cards, a 50” plasma screen, billiards cues, X-Box 360 games and accessories, Slushie machine parts, a hot dog roller, scallops, shrimp, strawberries, asparagus, and toaster pastries, as well as hazardous waste services, a burn pit, ammo and clips, bomb disposal services, blackout goggles for detainees, and confinement buildings.
The $385 billion total is at best a rough estimate; the real totals are surely higher. The Federal Procurement Data System that’s supposed to keep track of government contracts “often contains inaccurate data,” according to the Government Accountability Office. Harvard University economist Linda Bilmes calls the system “dysfunctional.” For example, hundreds of thousands of contracts have no “place of performance” listed at all. There are 116,527 contracts that list the place of performance as Switzerland, even though the vast majority are for delivering food to troops in Afghanistan and at bases worldwide.
The unreliable and opaque nature of the data becomes clearer when you consider that the top recipient of Pentagon contracts isn’t a company at all, but a category labeled “miscellaneous foreign contractors”; that is, almost 250,000 contracts totaling nearly $50 billion, or 12% of the total, have gone to recipients we can’t identify. As the Commission on Wartime Contracting explains, “miscellaneous foreign contractors” is a catch-all “often used for the purpose of obscuring the identification of the actual contractor[s].”
The reliability of the data only worsens when we consider the Pentagon’s inability to track its own money or pass an audit. Identifying the value of contracts given to specific companies is made more difficult by a general lack of corporate transparency, as well as complicated subcontracting arrangements, the use of foreign subsidiaries, and frequent corporate name changes.
Today, there are some signs of baseworld shrinkage. The hundreds of bases built in Iraq are long gone, and many of the hundreds built in Afghanistan are now being shut down as U.S. combat troops prepare to withdraw. The military is downsizing an old base in the Portuguese Azores and studying further base and troop reductions in Europe. While many in Congress are resisting an Obama administration request to reduce “excess capacity” among thousands of domestic bases through two new rounds of the Base Realignment and Closure process, at least some current and former members of Congress are calling for a parallel effort to close bases abroad.
At the same time, however, the military is building (or exploring the possibility of building) new bases from Asia and Africa to the Persian Gulf and Latin America. Small drone bases are on the rise from Niger to Saudi Arabia. Even in Europe, the Pentagon is still building bases while closing others.
Much work remains to be done to figure out who’s been benefiting from the Pentagon’s baseworld. The billions in contracts that sustain our bases, however, are a good reminder that there are immediate savings available by reducing troop deployments and Cold War bases abroad. They are also a reminder of where we should look when we’re told there isn’t enough money for Head Start or hospitals or housing.
If providing food stamps to citizens is abusive and condescending, then why do contractors need such subsidies?