The education bill that Obama hit the stump to defend on Monday contains a provision that would create a new green-schools advisory council and, in all likelihood, a green-schools czar.
The controversy over White House policy “czars” — the unconfirmed, largely unaccountable advisers with whom Obama has surrounded himself — started before the resignation of green-jobs czar Van Jones, but the Jones episode has prompted Republicans in Congress to get involved. Sen. Lamar Alexander, among others, has taken to the Senate floor to call this end-run around the confirmation process “an affront to the Constitution.” In the House, Rep. Mike Pence has introduced the Czar Accountability and Reform Act, which would cut off the funding for many of Obama’s newly created task forces and panels.
Democrats in Congress should be as concerned as Republicans about the executive’s usurpation of lawmaking power. Consider compensation czar Kenneth Feinberg, who has the power to determine how much executives at banks receiving bailout funds should be paid: Democrats support Feinberg’s mission, but they threw fits over Dick Cheney’s energy task force, which possessed no policymaking power. Instead of scaling back the czarocracy, the Democrats are adding to it.
The green-schools czar would advise the secretary of education on the $4 billion in grant money that the bill makes available for “greening” elementary and secondary schools. Approved activities run the gamut from repair and replacement of old heating and air-conditioning units to the reduction of noise pollution and the planting of trees around the school. It all sounds nice, but do the benefits of these activities justify the costs?
Leslie K. Paige of Citizens Against Government Waste has taken a look at similar programs and concluded that they don’t. Paige examined a provision in the stimulus bill that gave the Department of Energy $5 billion to “green” the homes of low-income families. He found that the program is especially prone to waste and fraud. The money is first allocated to state governments, which are then directed to give funding priority to “community action agencies.” (Hello, ACORN!) Prior to the stimulus windfall, the program had a tiny budget; its auditors nevertheless found tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of waste in one state (Pennsylvania) alone.
In another state (Nevada), the massive influx of stimulus funds met with delays and confusion after organized labor claimed it wasn’t getting a big enough share. After the stimulus passed, Nevada Democrats passed a law requiring half the new workers to have gone though union apprenticeships, adding to the cost of the program and slowing its pace. On top of that, the AFL-CIO sued the state housing division, arguing that all the new jobs should pay union wages and benefits. States and unions are involved in similar disputes in other states, leading even green advocates to question how much bang for the buck the program is providing.
Such stories reveal the true purpose of the green-jobs gospel that Obama brought Van Jones to the White House to spread: It is a way to funnel money to unions and left-wing “organizers” while pleasing environmentalists — a Democrats’ trifecta. Meanwhile, whatever benefits weatherization provides will be paid for with money that is taxed or borrowed from the private economy and thus not available for more productive uses. The Democrats say the $4 billion for green schools will come from savings realized elsewhere in the education bill, but the Congressional Budget Office has noted that half of those savings are unlikely to materialize. The other half will come from making the government by far the largest provider of student loans in the country, which will come with its own set of consequences.
The education bill has not attracted as much attention as the Democrats’ efforts to ration energy and take over the health-care system. After all, it is only the nationalization of the student-loan industry and the loosing of green goons on the nation’s school districts, and we’ve got to set priorities. But the bill is just as emblematic of the Left’s desire to centralize as much power in the federal government as possible. And though Van Jones is gone, the czar — another emblem of that desire — looks like it’s here to stay.
– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.