But even former EDA chief Orson Swindle eventually came around to the point of view that the program is useless, or perhaps worse than useless, describing it as a “congressional cookie jar.”
Mr. Swindle is keen to point out that he did not “eventually come around to the view” that the EDA is a mess and a waste — he went in knowing that. A true-believing Reaganite, his desire was to kill the EDA, or, failing that, to get it on a very short leash.
“It was a controversial agency at that point in time,” he says. “We knew what we were doing: We had to cut off the flow of money. And EDA was one of the worst examples I’d seen in my life, just one massive divvying out of money with nothing to show for it.”
Unable to simply shut the agency down, Mr. Swindle began engaging in some Reaganite hijinx: He began by submitting budget requests of $0.00. When Congress appropriated the money, anyway, Mr. Swindle made it harder to spend, capping grants at around $600,000 instead of the previous multi-million-dollar awards. The bureaucrats did not appreciate that: Ten $600,000 grants instead of one $6 million grant meant ten times the work.
And when all else failed, he turned to shaming the grant recipients. It is customary for government grant-making agencies to write boilerplate congratulatory letters to their clients, along with those oversized checks designed for photo ops. When a particularly egregious grant was proposed, Mr. Swindle would fight it. If eventually forced by Congress to make it, anyway, he’d have some fun with that letter. “Instead of writing, ‘Dear Mr. Mayor, it is my pleasure to award you a $400,000 grant for . . . whatever,’ I’d write, ‘As you know, you have been awarded $400,000 for a project that does not meet the standards or guidelines of EDA. Since you’re getting it, some other, more deserving city isn’t.’”
By the time I was off the phone with Mr. Swindle, I was ready to nominate him to run for president. (It helps that he is from Georgia, and so sounds a little like Phil Gramm, who really should have been nominated for president.)
Mr. Swindle was an early crusader against what we now call earmarks (they called them “add-ons” back then), having had a particularly ridiculous experience with one requested by Speaker of the House Jim Wright. When Mr. Swindle was presented with a multi-million-dollar grant for Fort Worth, Texas, for his approval, he asked what it was for. Nobody would tell him. He said he wouldn’t approve it, and was informed that Mr. Wright had inserted the grant into legislation. Mr. Swindle continued to resist, demanding to know what sort of project was being funded in Fort Worth. The best answer he could get was that it had something to do with the Fort Worth Stockyards. So he invited the mayor of Cowtown to Washington to explain.
The mayor brought along one Billy Bob Barnett, operator of the world’s largest honky-tonk: a place with a couple of dozen bars, a half-dozen dance floors, and, Texas being Texas, an indoor bull-riding facility. (I do not mean a mechanical bull. I mean bulls.) The stockyard was in decline, and the project clearly was intended for the benefit of Billy Bob.
“Wright got angry, you know, ‘You make that damned grant!’” Mr. Swindle says. “But Congress gave me some laws to go by, and I was trying to apply them. And here the battle begins.”
Mr. Swindle continued to resist. Speaker Wright would continue to insist. Speaker Wright would later resign under a cloud of scandal, some touching on dodgy business relationships overlapping with Billy Bob’s. (It’s complicated.)
“For four years, I thought I was signing that damned thing, but I never did sign,” Mr. Swindle says. He made a stand. And then along came the George H. W. Bush administration, sweeping away the old Reaganites, Mr. Swindle with them. “I wasn’t kinder or gentler,” he explains. Thank goodness for that.