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Capitol Gains: Questions for the presidential candidates.

March 27, 2008
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As this column is being written, the American people have begun the quadrennial process of choosing a president.
 




The early primaries have begun, and debates are broadcast almost weekly. I have to confess that I’m a political junkie and that I watch many of these debates. However, I find the questions tired and uninformative. Rarely are the answers anymore revealing.

So, I started thinking about questions I’d ask the candidates for president of the United States if I had the opportunity. I wasn’t trying for “gotcha” questions or those so technical or so esoteric that a candidate would not reasonably be able to answer. But I did come up with some questions relevant to the surveying and mapping profession that should also be of concern to all Americans.

Here’s my top 10 list of questions for the presidential candidates.

1. According to the inventories conducted by federal agencies in accordance with a law known as the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act (FAIR), there are 850,000 federal employees who have jobs that are commercial in nature--jobs that can be found in private companies, including small businesses, in the Yellow Pages in cities and towns across America.1 This government performance of commercial activities results in government duplication of and competition with the private sector in areas like surveying and mapping. What will you do as president to eliminate this wasteful expenditure of tax dollars on activities that are best left to private enterprise?

2. For many years, “entitlement” spending (payments to individuals who are “entitled” to government assistance if they meet certain criteria, e.g., food stamps, Medicaid, agriculture support payments) has grown, while “discretionary” spending (expenditures on actual government programs that benefit the general welfare of the nation, e.g., national defense, the FBI, building roads, protecting the environment, operating air traffic control systems) has steadily declined as a percentage of the overall federal budget. Currently, two-thirds of the federal budget goes to entitlements and only about one-third goes to discretionary programs.2 What will you do as president to reduce entitlement spending so that more tax dollars go to discretionary programs?

3. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the United States has infrastructure needs of more than $1.6 trillion.3 The ASCE’s “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” gives the following grades: Roads, D; Wastewater, D-; Drinking Water, D-; Aviation, D+. The second-highest grade, C, is given to bridges, and we know what happened last summer with the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis. Adam Smith, the father of conservative economics, wrote more than 100 years ago in “The Wealth of Nations” that one of the fundamental duties of government is “erecting and maintaining … public institutions and public works.”4 What will you do as president to recognize the need to invest in rebuilding and expanding our public works infrastructure, build public support for such a program and allocate the resources necessary to get the $1.6-trillion job done?

4. When the average American makes a capital investment in a home, he or she usually finances it over time through a 30-year mortgage. The home-owner gets the money for the house from the bank in a lump sum in the first year and treats it as a capital asset that is paid off over time. The federal government funds and budgets capital improvement projects (dams, roads, bridges and other infrastructure) the same way it funds pencils and paper clips--one year at a time. The U.S. government is the only government in the Western world that does not have a capital budget.5 What will you do as president to move the federal government to a capital budget so that the mechanism for rebuilding our infrastructure will be in place?

5. On average, it takes 13 years to open a new highway, from initial planning to completion, largely due to lengthy approval processes.6 The cost of the project increases over time, while the demand continues to be unmet, which causes further traffic congestion. The last license to result in the construction and operation of a new nuclear plant in the United States was issued in 1973.7 There hasn’t been a new oil refinery built in the United States since 1976.8 What will you do as president to reduce these regulations and streamline the process for delivering these vitally needed infrastructure projects in a timely and cost-effective manner?

6. In 2003, foreign students earned 59 percent of the engineering doctorate degrees awarded in U.S. universities. In Germany, 36 percent of undergraduates receive their degrees in science and engineering. In China, the corresponding figure is 59 percent, and in Japan it is 66 percent. In the States, the share is 32 percent. What will you do as president to meet our nation’s critical shortage of American scientists and engineers?

7. In 2001 (the most recent year for which data is available), U.S. industry spent more on tort litigation and related costs than on research and development.9 Frivolous lawsuits are stifling our economy, our productivity and our international competitiveness. What will you do as president to reform our tort system?

8. In a 2006 study commissioned by the National Geographic Society,10 half of Americans age 18 to 24 could not find New York on a map. Only 37 percent could find Iraq on a map. What will you do as president to enhance geography awareness, education, literacy and competency in the United States?

9. While more than 40 federal agencies are involved in surveying and mapping, the federal government doesn’t know how much it spends on geospatial activities but estimates one-half is wasted on duplication.11 In 2003, the Government Accountability Office identified 44 separate federal programs to provide employment and job training services.12 That was a follow-up to a 2000 report that identified 40 such programs. Rather than being reformed and consolidated, the programs grew. These programs cost $30 billion a year, and they are not just in the Department of Labor, where one would expect them, but in such other cabinet agencies as Agriculture, Interior and Health and Human Services.13 What will you do as president to reform the government, eliminate waste and duplication, and terminate unnecessary spending?

10. It is estimated that Uncle Sam owns some 657 million acres of land, 29 percent of the landmass of the nation and some 500,000 buildings.14 However, that is only an estimate because the federal government is an inefficient landlord. There is currently no accurate inventory of the land and buildings owned by the U.S. government. That has led the Government Accountability Office to identify federal real property asset management as one of the top “high-risk” activities (of waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement) in the government.15 Other studies have identified millions of acres and tens of thousands of buildings the government itself admits it no longer needs, but the Byzantine rules and procedures governing property disposal makes selling these surplus lands and buildings virtually impossible. What will you do as president to create a land inventory or cadastre, identify surplus property, and sell land the taxpayers should no longer be forced to pay to own?

Members of the geospatial profession should be raising these questions with the candidates, whether by attending town meetings, submitting questions to candidates or the media via online forums, or writing letters to the editors of local and national newspapers. Public discussion with the presidential candidates on these important issues−issues that affect all Americans−will not be considered if they are not raised by those most knowledgeable--geospatial professionals.



References

1 www.whitehouse.gov/omb/legislative/testimony/styles092702.html.

2 www.heritage.org/Research/features/issues/issuearea/Budget.cfm.

3 www.asce.org/reportcard/2005/index2005.cfm.

4 www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html.

5 www.theatlantic.com/politics/decision/970120.htm   

6 www.csmonitor.com/2005/0921/p11s02-usec.html.  

7 www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2005-09-22-nuclearplant_x.htm.

8 www.csmonitor.com/2005/0921/p11s02-usec.html.

9 www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/05/AR2005120501548.html.

10 news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/05/0502_060502_geography_2.html.     

11 First reported in the “Report of the Federal Mapping Task Force on Mapping, Charting, Geodesy and Surveying,” July 1973. www.gcn.com/online/vol1_no1/22372-1.html.

12 www.gao.gov/new.items/d04282.pdf.

13 www.gao.gov/new.items/d03589.pdf.

14 www.cnie.org/NLE/CRSreports/Natural/nrgen-17.cfm ;  www7.nationalacademies.org/ocga/testimony/Federal_Property_Management.asp 

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