As I understand it, I'm supposed to be extremely indebted to President Bush and Congress for sending me back some of the tax money I paid to the federal government last April. Well, I'm not particularly grateful for that $600 check because it was my money in the first place.

I'm really tired of hearing politicians - Democrats and Republicans alike -- claim credit for returning some of our own money to us. They hail "federal funds" like some sort of manna from heaven that doesn't cost us anything. "Good news, it's federally funded," they tell us, and we're supposed to thank them profusely and vote for them in the next election. The dirty little secret is, federal funds are generated by the taxpayers, mostly through income tax collections. And if the politicians collect more taxes than the government needs, why shouldn't they return some of the surplus to us? It's only fair.

So I'm not offering effusive thanks to President Bush and the Republicans for refunding some of the income taxes that I paid in April, nor do I sympathize with senators Tom Daschle and Harry Reid, and other liberal Democrats who whine about the president's $1.3 trillion tax cut. "The surplus is gone and the government is going broke," they complain, sounding exactly like Chicken Little when he said the sky was falling. Look at some of the things they're spending our money on, and you'll see what I mean.

What things? Well, according to a recent book, "The Government Assistance Almanac," compiled by J. Robert Dumouchel, there are precisely 1,454 federal domestic assistance programs ready to put more than $1.5 trillion worth of our tax money (more than Bush's tax rebate) into the pockets of America's special interests. If I weren't satisfied with the $600 that Uncle Sam sent me earlier this month, I'd spend $210 for Dumouchel's 925-page book. It's a bargain at less than 23 cents per page.

"There is virtually no part of life that the federal government doesn't fund in some way," wrote Cato Institute scholar Doug Bandow, who reviewed the book for the Wall Street Journal. "The only question is how much." Federal programs run the gamut from $279 billion worth of Social Security payouts to the Dollar Home Sales Program, which spends a miserly $1,500 per year "to foster housing opportunities for low- to moderate-income families." If the program enables poor people to buy homes for only one dollar, I think they should advertise it on the Psychic Network.

But wait, there's more, as they say in those mindless TV infomercials. The Department of Housing and Urban Development spends $40.3 billion on housing and another $167 billion on loans and loan guarantees. For example, there are housing grants for policemen (The Officer Next Door Sales Program) and teachers (The Teacher Next Door Initiative) who buy property in poor neighborhoods. And there are subsidies for multi-family rental units, "troubled multi-family housing projects" and people who are "special credit risks." What, no Diplomat Next Door program?

But wait, there's more. The Department of Health and Human Services occupies a whopping 139 pages in Dumouchel's almanac with $441 billion in grants, some of which might be regarded as handouts. According to Bandow, "You can find there, along with health and poverty programs that serve virtually every political constituency (also known as special interest groups), some less obvious ones such as the $4.9 billion Promote the Survival and Continuing Vitality of Native Languages Program." I thought that Indian casinos were going to pay for that sort of thing, but I was wrong.

The Commerce Department's Foreign Commercial Service underwrites "export promotions with displays, trade and industrial exhibits, trade missions, catalog shows and foreign buyer shows" with our tax money. I participated in some of those overseas boondoggles, and the shrimp were delicious, thank you very much. You should see those U.S. agricultural trade offices that you're paying for. You'd be impressed.

And speaking of agriculture, the U.S. Farm Subsidy Program last year paid farmers $32 billion in what Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post called "a stupid program that costs a ton of cash and doesn't benefit constituents." The program "fails to address rural poverty, does little for the environment, and promotes the over-production that drives prices down, making farmers even more subsidy-dependent than they were in the first place," he wrote. But Congress continues to approve the program by overwhelming margins in defense of "family farms," which are nearly extinct in the agri-business era. Go figure!

And then there's my very favorite federal government handout - more than $10 million per year to the Cuban exile community in Miami to operate something called TV Marti, which no one watches. TV Marti is on the air from 4 to 6 a.m. daily, broadcasting to Cuba from a tethered blimp in the Florida Keys. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has jammed it for years so no one can watch its programs. Nevertheless, congressmen are afraid to kill TV Marti because they might be labeled pro-Communist. The saddest part of this story is that TV Marti killed its sister station, Radio Marti, which used to be the highest-rated radio station in Cuba.

Does any of this make sense? Of course not, but that's what our elected representatives are doing with our federal tax money. So should we feel guilty about accepting a few hundred dollars worth of tax rebates? No way! If that $1.3 trillion had remained in Washington, tax-and-spend politicians would have given it away. But fortunately, the president returned some of it to us before they could spend it. Thanks Dubya.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City


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