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Editorial: Bordering On Lunacy; A Look at Spending Choices

Bill Stenger, the developer and businessman who hopes to eventually bring thousands of new jobs to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, also has to concern himself with protecting jobs that already exist. Specifically, he’s worried about the Jay Peak ski resort that he co-owns, which is located just south of the international border. A majority of skiiers at the resort are Canadian, and Stenger is worried that visitors who face long delays at inspection stations when entering the U.S. will stay put in Quebec and do their skiing there.

Under normal circumstances, this would seem to present a very solvable problem. Screening a fairly predictable number of people — even accounting for heightened terrorism-related security concerns — should require little more than reviewing procedures to make them as streamlined as possible and, if need be, hiring additional agents. And considering that trade with our northern neighbor accounted for $616 billion in economic activity last year and with our southern neighbors in Mexico for $493 billion, it’s not hard to make the case for doing what it takes to expedite the movement of people and goods across borders.

Doing what it takes, however, falls well beyond the scope of Congress, which is capable of little more these days than partisan bickering, except in those rare instances when it manages to overcome gridlock and make matters worse. When it comes to easing the flow of cross-border traffic, for example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection was hamstrung by the mandatory spending cuts that kicked in when Congress couldn’t reach an agreement on long-term deficit reduction. In response, the agency announced a pilot program in which it invited communities dependent on cross-border traffic to come up with their own ways of supplementing the funding of border-crossing services.

Stenger has offered to pay for extra staffing on weekends and holidays, which he figures will cost about $1,000 a day.

“I’m willing to buck up and help pay for it to help them do the job that I know that they want to do but they just haven’t had the resources to do it,” he said. Five such proposals are expected to be chosen around the country for the pilot project.

At a time when the budget deficit has reached worrisome levels, some might be tempted to applaud Congress for having the good sense to underfund services and thereby coerce those who need those services to volunteer to pick up some of the tab. Hold the applause. It’s hard to figure out exactly what Congress has in mind, but reduced spending certainly isn’t it.

At the same time Stenger is volunteering to help fund additional inspectors because Congress has forced the agency to cut back spending, the Senate voted to spend billions to hire agents to patrol the borders and stop people who are attempting to enter the country illegally. The provision, which was added to the immigration reform bill to appease a handful of hold-out Republican senators, would result in the hiring of as many as 20,000 agents if the House concurs. None of that money would be available where it’s clearly needed — at border crossings serving legal visitors — because all of it has been earmarked for the Border Patrol, which is regarded by many as already overstaffed. (Its budget quadrupled in the 1990s and then tripled in the 2000s.)

Is throwing extravagant amounts of money at programs that don’t need it any better than taking it away from services that are desperately needed? Those who wish to ponder that question might consider House Republicans’ recent passage of a farm bill that strips funding for the food stamp program that serves hungry people while preserving various subsidies for powerful agricultural interests.

Recent surveys indicate that Americans have a more favorable impression of communism than they do of Congress, although our elected representatives still hold a slim lead over North Korea. The gang in Pyongyang must be feeling increasingly confident about their chances of climbing up a notch.