Marvin Horne, a raisin farmer, officially owes the government “at least $650,000 in unpaid fines. And 1.2 million pounds of unpaid raisins, roughly equal to his entire harvest for four years.” In a remarkable feature for the Washington Post, reporter David Fahrenthold explains:
In a given year, the government may decide that farmers are growing more raisins than Americans will want to eat. That would cause supply to outstrip demand. Raisin prices would drop. And raisin farmers might go out of business. To prevent that, the government does something drastic. It takes away a percentage of every farmer’s raisins. Often, without paying for them. These seized raisins are put into a government-controlled “reserve” and kept off U.S. markets. In theory, that lowers the available supply of raisins and thereby increases the price for farmers’ raisin crops. Or, at least, the part of their crops that the government didn’t just take. For years, Horne handed over his raisins to the reserve. Then, in 2002, he refused.
The national raisin reserve was created by the Truman administration. As Fahrenthold writes, Horne’s “life has now become a case study in one of Washington’s bad habits — a tendency never to reexamine old laws once they’re on the books.”
Meanwhile, in the well-publicized throes of sequestration, one Pentagon department is reverting to another staggering, if more straightforward budgetary practice:
While Hagel is asking Congress not to take a knife to next year’s budget, the Department of Defense is actually having a hard time spending all of this year’s money. As Al Kamen at the Washington Post reports, at least one office within the Pentagon is practically begging its employees to “Spend the money! Spend it all! Spend it now!”
Why this desperate, ill-timed spending craze? The federal government, as Kristen Hinman notes, allocates funding on a “use-it-or-lose-it basis.” If the department doesn’t exhaust its budget by September, Congress assumes it can survive with a smaller budget. “So every summer,” she writes, “federal agencies race to spend down their coffers.”
Arcane regulations and egregious government spending (induced by preposterous laws) aren’t new. But as these stories illustrate, the federal budget has consequences — whether it’s a 64-year-old raisin reserve or acquisitive Pentagon employees (suffering a 20 percent pay cut and weekly furloughs). Despite their obvious flaws, mechanisms like the sequester do bring budgetary challenges to the forefront, and show us what we need to fix. At Democracy in America, Will Wilkinson claims that “big, dumb, indiscriminate across-the-board cuts” sometimes reveal urgent problems, or money that isn’t being spent wisely: “Meat cleavers work, and they aren’t in practice so indiscriminate as they may seem to be.”
It might be time to take a meat cleaver to the “Raisin Administration Committee.”