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The Fight Over Fletc

May 15, 2000

The federal government is not just in Washington, D.C. Actually, the federal government is a gigantic tapeworm with its mouth and brain in Washington, and the rest of its innumerable segments curled through much of the land. Federal government departments, bureaus, and agencies have offices in thousands of communities across the country.

One example is the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC--'fletsee' seems to be the official government pronunciation). Established as a bureau of the Treasury Department in 1970, FLETC trains most federal law enforcement officers and agents.

FLETC began its operations in temporary facilities in Washington, D.C. However, in 1975 it moved to its current headquarters in Glynn County, Georgia, a rural county of about 65,000 people (including me) located on the south Georgia coast. In 1989 FLETC established a satellite facility in Artesia, New Mexico, and in 1995 opened what is classified as a temporary satellite campus in Charleston, South Carolina. The bulk of FLETC operations, however, are here in Glynn.

Although Glynn is not a one horse county, FLETC does make an impact on the county’s economy. The Glynn County facility receives much of FLETC's now $115 million annual budget and employs almost 1,300 federal workers. Those workers earn, save, and spend money in Glynn County. Therefore, their part in the local economy is substantial.

So substantial is an agency such as FLETC's contribution to a local economy, that Senator Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, tried to use his power as a member of the Senate Appropriations committee to move a key FLETC training program from Glynn County to Charleston last year. The move would have been expensive and frivolous, for it would have required expanding the Charleston facility, but it would have left the Glynn County facility with empty buildings.

But this prodigal use of resources did not concern Senator Hollings, for he knows the maxim: All Politics is Local. Senator Hollings’ efforts were unsuccessful, though he did manage to obtain enough funding to keep the "temporary" satellite campus in Charleston operating for another year.

That was last year. This year FLETC completed a proposal to reorganize its operations so that they are more efficient. The proposal calls for housing Border Patrol training programs in Artesia and all other training programs in Glynn County. This reorganization would expand operations in Glynn County and Artesia, it would shut down operations in Charleston, and it would save FLETC $44 million.

But the FLETC proposal is not stopping Senator Hollings, who still wants more FLETC programs in Charleston and will not give up the Charleston facility without a fight. Nor is the proposal stopping Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, who is now trying to move FLETC programs from Glynn County to his state. Senator Byrd, too, knows that All Politics is Local.

It has been easy for Glynn County residents to criticize Senators Hollings and Byrd. FLETC has been based in Glynn County for 25 years, we protest, and here are two politicians poking their noses in our business, and trying to move pieces of our FLETC programs to their states when it's inefficient to do so. This is politics-as-usual, we charge, and wasteful government to boot.

But we would be anything but receptive and cooperative if FLETC officials had determined that the Glynn County facility was inefficient and proposed shutting it down. FLETC means jobs for local folks and dollars for the local economy, we would scratch and kick and claw to keep those jobs and dollars here whether it’s efficient or not. As well, we would not be pleased with our own Congressman or Senators if they came to us and said, "Sorry, folks, your facility is too costly. It needs to be shut down."

There is nothing unique about the political battle over FLETC. The same type of battle is fought hundreds of times each year over different government operations or programs. The fact that such a battle is so typical in government and politics makes it worth studying.

The political battle over FLETC illustrates a huge difference between government enterprise and private enterprise. Imagine if a private enterprise figured out how to expand its operations but reorganize them in a way that would save it $44 million. It would make the changes without hesitation, and all parties would gain: Owners would earn greater profits, workers would have greater job security and would likely receive greater pay and benefits, and the cost savings would make the enterprise more competitive in the market, benefitting consumers.

But FLETC, of course, is not a private enterprise. FLETC is a government enterprise, and unfortunately, there is no way to separate government from politics. Politicians have votes to hustle for and constituents to answer to. And in the world of politics, when all politics is local, saving $44 million is just not that important.

More than that, the political battle over FLETC illustrates what government and politics are really all about: The government is all about loot and politics is all about loot-grabbing.

Each year, the federal government takes in a ton of loot in taxes. Each year, it puts that loot up for grabs. The most skillful, powerful, or strategically-positioned grabbers get the loot.

The FLETC loot which is at stake, is but a drop in the fiscal ocean of government loot, but a drop to the federal government can amount to a small lake or a good-sized pond for a local economy. If the loot is up for grabs, why not grab some? Citizens elect their Senators and Congressmen and send them off to Washington to go grabbing for loot.

Naturally, we here in Glynn County are hoping that the FLETC reorganization proposal becomes law. If the proposal becomes law, it won’t be because the reorganization is the right thing to do or because it will save $44 million. It will be because, in this political battle, our politicians--with our help--proved to be the better loot-grabbers.

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Don Matthew teaches economics at the Coastal Georgia Community College. Send him MAIL.


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