It isn't that operations like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) or the Agriculture Department's Market Access Program aren't effective. They have certainly stimulated US trade and investment abroad.
But they're included in a wide range of federal programs and agencies that exist largely, or primarily, to benefit America's corporate "citizens," including multibillion-dollar businesses that often pride themselves on not needing any help from the government.
Dozens of such items are now squarely in the cross hairs of the new "Stop Corporate Welfare!" coalition, a remarkable cross-party, cross-philosophy amalgam. Here's Republican deficit hawk Rep. John Kasich and Democratic arch-liberal Ted Kennedy, Americans for Tax Reform and Friends of the Earth.
Mr. Kasich made perhaps the best argument for what the group is about. He noted that last year Congress went after welfare benefits going to people "who don't have money or powerful Washington friends," and this year it should do the same to those who do. Another Republican coalition backer, Sen. John McCain, added, "As a matter of simple fairness, Congress has an obligation to ensure that corporate interests share the burden of deficit reduction."
We wish them well in doing away with publicly funded roads for logging companies, paid foreign advertising for huge agribusinesses, and lots of other subsidy timber that ought to be felled by the budget-balancing ax.
But, as with social programs, we hope the ax is swung with some care. Arguments can be made for the economic, or even social, benefits of many of these programs. A strong case can be made, for instance, for maintaining some funding for OPIC insurance to lessen the risks of investing in some parts of the world (Eastern Europe and Russia, for instance), or for sustaining America's contribution to the International Monetary Fund (another target).
If the coalition ever shifts its fire from actual spending programs to tax loopholes that benefit business, the question of what goes and what stays will grow hotter. Conservative taxpayer groups, for instance, want no part of boosting government revenues by that means.
Still, there's plenty of corporate welfare for the budget-cutters to agree on. The programs targeted by the coalition so far total a relatively modest $11.5 million. Estimates put the overall amount in subsidies and tax breaks for business at nearly $90 billion. Cuts from programs that benefit the poor, such as welfare and Medicaid, are projected to total $60 billion through 2002.
Some lawmakers favor a commission to identify just which items of "corporate pork" ought to be lopped off. That could be useful - as long as it's not an excuse for inaction, or a forum for the corporate lobbyists who want to thwart the whole endeavor.