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Petroleum Pork

September 25, 2000

The Clinton/Gore administration’s policy of depleting the Strategic Oil Reserve to ostensibly hold down oil prices has been widely criticized by industry analysts, Alan Greenspan, and even Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers as being too insignificant to have any sizable effect on oil prices.

"It’s a silly idea," said Carl Weinberg, chief economist at High Frequency Economics, Ltd. of New York. "The market would just shrug that off," declared John Lichtblau, oil specialist at the PIRA Energy Group in New York.

But these critics miss the point: The Clinton/Gore administration doesn’t want to push down the overall price of oil, it wants to use the extra supplies to buy votes in politically marginal states before the November election, especially the Northeast. In this regard it is simply following in the footsteps of the king of pork barrel spending and patron saint of Democrats everywhere, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Historians have spread the myth that FDR "spent the country out of the Depression," but the overriding objective of New Deal spending was to strategically buy votes to help assure FDR’s reelection. A 1938 "Official Report of the U.S. Senate Committee on Campaign Expenditures" found, for example, that Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers in Kentucky and Pennsylvania were required, as a condition of employment, to vote for the senior senator from Kentucky, an FDR supporter. Republicans in those states were instructed to change their party affiliation if they wanted to keep their jobs, and all WPA employees were told to donate 2 percent of their wages to the Roosevelt campaign in order to remain employed.

In Pennsylvania, "employment cards" were issued by the Roosevelt administration that entitled card holders to "two to four weeks of employment around election time," while in Illinois WPA jobs consisted of "canvassing" for Democratic votes shortly before election time, after which the workers were laid off.

More recently, economists William Shughart and Jim Couch (The Political Economy of the New Deal) noted that even though the South was most adversely affected by the Depression, the lion’s share of New Deal subsidies went to western states, where FDR’s support was weakest. The average resident of a western state received 60 percent more subsidies than did the average southerner.

Stanford University economist Gavin Wright also found that during the New Deal, those states where the percentage of the electoral vote going to the Democratic Party in 1932 and 1936 was lower, New Deal spending was the highest. FDR allocated New Deal spending to where it was most helpful to him, not where the Depression was the severest. "The distribution of the billions of dollars appropriated by Congress to prime the economic pump,’ write Shughart and Couch, "was guided less by considerations of economic need than by the forces of ordinary politics."

So it should not come as a surprise to anyone that the Clinton/Gore administration has responded to higher oil prices -- caused primarily by its own environmental policies that have blocked domestic oil exploration -- by proposing to buy votes with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. It gets cold in October in the Northeast, where heating oil prices are expected to be at least 50 percent higher than last winter Anticipating political problems caused by higher heating oil prices, the administration this past July set up a government-run "home heating oil reserve" in the Northeast. Vice President Gore’s current proposal to tap further into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is just a continuation of this vote-buying strategy.

What’s next for the most cynical and manipulative administration in memory -- renting out the Lincoln bedroom for campaign cash?


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