EVER SINCE last November's stunning election results were in, both the new congressional leaders and President Clinton have been racing to enact a middle-class tax cut. This means, of course, that they are also looking for government programs to trim or eliminate. Some of this tax-cut rhetoric has been directed at cutting welfare programs for the poor, but very little has been aimed at cutting federal handouts for wealthy corporations.
By some estimates, taxpayers actually hand out billions more to corporations than they do to the poor. Using data from the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Office of Management and Budget, the Ralph Nader-founded group Essential Information estimates that "Aid for Dependent Corporations" carries a price tag of $104 billion per year, while social-welfare programs (excluding Medicare) cost taxpayers $75 billion.
Many of these corporate welfare programs can rightly be called "polluter pork." They are programs that waste taxpayer resources and damage the environment too. These polluter pork programs should be first on the chopping block.
For example, companies that mine gold and silver (often foreign-owned) are allowed to plunder our public lands for billions of dollars of natural resources and not pay one penny to the federal treasury. A 12.5 percent royalty on minerals extracted from public lands (similar to that charged for oil and gas) would generate an estimated $277 million in annual revenues.
Similarly, the timber industry gets a generous U.S. Forest Service road-building program to gain access to our national forests. Since the Forest Service sells the trees for less than the costs of building the roads and administering the program, taxpayers lose an estimated $244 million a year in forest road programs.
Unfortunately, corporate welfare to polluters extends well beyond the natural resources sector. The nuclear power industry, including multi-billion dollar corporations such as General Electric and Westinghouse, have been feeding at the public trough for more than 40 years, receiving an estimated annual taxpayer subsidy of $10.5 billion.
Even though no nuclear power plant has been ordered and built since 1973, some companies still push to get more money from the federal government. General Atomics, of San Diego, Calif., has been one long-standing recipient of government funds to develop a gas-cooled reactor called the GT-MHR (Gas Turbine Modular Helium Reactor).
This reactor program was rejected by the Bush and Clinton administrations as well as the National Academy of Sciences, yet General Atomics' congressional allies have managed repeatedly to secure funding for this boondoggle. Terminating this program would save taxpayers at least $2.6 billion.
Not to be outbid for taxpayer handouts, the fossil fuel and agriculture industries also receive subsidies which waste tax dollars and encourage environmentally harmful activities.
The coal industry is the recipient of the $2.2 billion so-called Clean Coal Technology program which promotes the use of the dirtiest fossil fuel. Corporate ranchers such as Texaco and Chevron pay the federal government less than one fifth of what they'd pay private landowners for grazing privileges, and leave the public rangelands in a deplorable condition.
In the last Congress, thanks in part to more than $18 million in campaign contributions from mining and ranching-related Political Action Committees, the Senate blocked attempts to increase grazing fees and reform the mining law. Other recipients of corporate welfare have been similarly generous to their congressional benefactors. For example, the nuclear industry spent over $14 million on congressional campaign contributions from 1985 to 1992.
The elections in November signaled a public desire for changing business as usual. A national poll conducted in December 1994 found that 73 percent of Americans supported cutting nuclear and fossil fuel programs if energy programs were to be cut. The new Congress and the Clinton administration should give taxpayers a break from the whole range of taxpayer handouts which now subsidize pollution and the destruction of our natural resources.
Taxpayers pay twice for polluter pork programs, once with their purse, the second time with their health and the environment. By cutting these programs, Congress and the Clinton administration could begin to pay for a middle-class tax cut or reduce the federal deficit, and they could begin weaning large multi-national corporations from the government dole.
Carl Perry is the field organizer for the Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG). MaryPIRG is a non-profit, non-partisan environment and consumer advocacy group. Anna Aurelio is a staff scientist with U.S. PIRG, the national lobbying office of the state PIRGs.