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Hack WatchNewsletter | October 28, 2022

Hack Watch: Debunking the Big Budget Bogeyman

Ethics in GovernmentGovernment CapacityIndependent AgenciesRight-Wing Media
Hack Watch: Debunking the Big Budget Bogeyman

The government is hardly some reckless teenager on a spending spree.

This article first appeared in our weekly Hack Watch newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our Hack Watch website.

What is the media’s job? 

You can imagine many bitter answers to this question: to brainwash you, to sell you something, to parrot elite talking points. But even the fiercest defenders of the media’s value can acknowledge that mainstream media is floundering in some serious systemic ways. 

Public trust in newspapers and television news is lower than trust in the presidency and the Supreme Court. (Things have to be pretty bad to be seen as less trustworthy than the people who just rolled back Roe and seem poised to do the same to other basic rights). Public trust, according to Gallup, has diminished in everything but organized labor over the past year, but while trust in the police reached new lows in 2022, 45 percent of those polled still trusted the police “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” compared to only 16 percent who trusted newspapers at those levels. 

It seems pretty incontestable that a big part of the media’s job is “informing the public of things they need to know.” Accordingly, the media’s coverage of how the government spends money is a spectacular example of how it fails. Congress has enabled a vacuum of sensible, accessible information about the appropriations bills it’s supposed to pass each year to fund government activity, and the media has not stepped in to fill the void. 

Democrats are dismal communicators about and cowardly defenders of necessary funding for the federal agencies responsible for ensuring everything from clean water, food, and air to workplace safety and workers’ rights. Meanwhile, the Republicans shovel money towards the gun-slinging, arms-dealing, nuke-stockpiling wings of the government (often joined by centrist Democrats), while imposing debilitating budget cuts on agencies that work for the public interest, cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and then condemn the government’s “bloated,” “reckless,” “runaway” spending. 

Republicans like to pretend they’re the strict, responsible parents of a runaway teenager on a spending spree. The federal government is hardly an unruly teenager; it is in fact the world’s largest arms dealer. It’s also the world’s largest employer. Democrats meanwhile seem pathologically opposed to modeling small-d democratic practices by engaging with voters in an honest conversation about government spending priorities, and explaining the valuable work of regulators who labor to make the economy more fair and the earth less poisoned. 

Is it any wonder that the most-watched show on Netflix (no hate to Stranger Things) chose for its bogeyman and cast of villains the US Department of Energy, instead of, say, Dow Chemical? 

Incisive media analysis could easily puncture politicians’ posturing. But mainstream media regularly dodges the responsibility of educating Americans about how their government works. Typical coverage of the government’s annual spending bills follows the same rote, shallow formulas year after year. Headlines are often some version of “Government Passes Stopgap Spending Bill, Avoiding Shutdown” or “Congress Passes [insert giant number of dollars] Spending Bill.” A couple of big numbers are quoted, and a couple of budgetary items are singled out based on perceived newsworthiness. 

Eyes glaze over, and the takeaway is twofold: Congress is pretty bad at doing its job (the bills are usually delayed, making government shutdown a recurring threat) and the government spends a ton of money. 

Well yes, it does, but on what exactly? In contrast to this rote approach, see an all-too-rare example of mainstream media doing a good job answering that question: MSNBC’s Steve Benen explained Sen. Ron Johnson’s attacks on Medicare and Social Security by breaking down how federal spending works, while being “mindful of the fact that the moment some readers see phrases like ‘discretionary budget,’ they’ll quickly go elsewhere.” 

Republicans in Congress decried the “2,700-page, $1.5 trillion omnibus” for 2022, the contents of which they didn’t bother to explain, while conservatives over at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for the Federal Budget frothed over “woke pork” projects in the bill, like $995K for equitable energy system research at the University of Massachusetts and $500K for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center museum in Cincinnati. The horrors!

While mainstream coverage doesn’t always blatantly fearmonger, it hardly quells a government-skeptic’s disgust when it follows its formula of mentioning the bill’s length and sticker price, discussing how long, bloody and partisan congressional wrangling over the bill was, and noting a few big ticket items. The media should of course cover congressional battles, and highlighting newsworthy items makes sense. What we’re objecting to is how annual reiterations of the same brief formula, just scratching the surface of what government spending is and does, keeps the government bureaucracy opaque and easy to distrust. As the saying goes, people fear what they don’t understand.

It’s easy to write the government off as a swamp when you have no idea what it’s up to. Conversely, there’s every reason to believe that if the media helped translate government spending priorities into accessible content for their audience, people would raise some specific objections. That would be good for democracy! Constituents should be able to identify, support and critique various government spending priorities. That’s far healthier for democracy than knee-jerk disdain for big government spending. 

Over at Fox Business, Sen. Marsha Blackburn demonstrates typical conservative rhetoric and news coverage of government spending: “[The Democrats] want to go pork up one more great big spending bill and load trillions of dollars of additional debt onto the backs of our children, our grandchildren. It is immoral.” That’s rich, from a woman who states on her own website that she uses her position on the “powerful Senate Armed Services Committee” to “fight for numerous national security installations in Tennessee and the communities that surround them.” In other words, she lobbies for the government to spend millions of dollars on defense contracts in her state, just like every other Republican and plenty of Democrats. 

Blackburn claims to have been instrumental in pushing funding for the nuclear-armed Sea-Launched Cruise Missile, a dangerous weapon deemed Thursday to have “zero value” by a senior defense official. She’s not the only Congressperson going crazy over defense earmarks: Senate appropriators are pushing for $58 billion more in defense spending than the military even requested. When RollCall covered this story in July, they noted that their article was the sole press coverage of the Defense Department’s June report showing how much more Congress wanted to spend on defense than the military requested. The near silence is deafening. 

The fact is, approximately half of the last “great big spending bill”—a whopping $782.5 billion—went to defense spending alone. And nearly half of that defense spending—nearly $7 trillion of the $14 trillion dollars allocated to the Defense Department since 2001—went straight into the pockets of private for-profit defense contractors. In other words, a quarter of the government’s discretionary budget goes to corporate contractors like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. These contractors regularly price-gouge the Pentagon, commit fraud with taxpayer money, and fail to account for billions of dollars they receive. Yet deficit hawks rarely come for the government’s single most wasteful spender, and the journalists who platform them don’t question this major omission. 

Instead of investigating and explaining to readers what the government spends its money on, the media focuses on attention-grabbing budget add-ons like one-time aid to Ukraine. Most stories that covered Congress passing a stopgap spending bill at the end of September (a continuing resolution) highlighted the $12 billion to Ukraine, and gestured vaguely to the rest of the money keeping the government open. Is it any wonder then that so much discourse on social media pits continued funding for Ukraine against funding domestic American priorities? 

Who benefits from the silence of the media, and their favored economic pundits, about the massive ongoing build-up of the Pentagon budget? 

A word on those economic pundits: mainstream media overwhelmingly favors Marc Goldwein and his colleagues at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget over other experts on federal spending. (See Politico’s Morning Money this week leading with 452 words covering CRFB’s new report as “a fiscal plan for the moment,” or CRFB showing up in six separate articles in The Washington Post so far in October alone, or CNN covering Goldwein’s protestations against student debt relief the day before, the day of, and the day after the Biden administration announced the cancellation plan this August.) 

Unlike many other think tanks that focus on federal spending priorities, from the National Priorities Project to Taxpayers for Common Sense, CRFB charts a wide course around defense spending, while arguing against every other sort of government spending. Goldwein has been a major opponent of student debt relief and an advocate of raising the eligibility age for Social Security benefits, all in the name of “fiscal responsibility.” You know what his institute has studiously ignored? The fact that the Defense Department has never passed a financial audit because of its chronic mismanagement of billions of taxpayer dollars. 

If any other agency regularly failed its audits, or buried an internal report exposing $125 billion dollars of waste, you know that Goldwein and his austerity-loving “nonpartisan” ilk would be tearing into them. 

Of course, it’s not just the media replicating the center/right willful blindness to defense spending that makes the national conversation about government spending so incoherent. It is also that the other half of discretionary spending goes so unexplored. One of the major blindspots that the media (inadvertently or not) encourages in the American public is a lack of understanding of what kinds of work the government does “behind the scenes” on behalf of the public interest. (The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a fantastic example of that work.) 

The media might mention child nutrition programs or COVID-19 spending or housing vouchers, because the public directly interfaces with those programs. But they won’t mention something like funding for the DOJ Antitrust Division, whose lawyers go up against the monopolistic corporations present in peoples’ everyday lives. They won’t get into how the budget cuts for the Food and Drug Administration impacted the agency’s ability to ensure the safety of the food people eat every day. They won’t mention the absolute pittance of a budget for implementing the Endangered Species Act, even though plenty of people would care if they knew. 

We’re not arguing that the media should attempt to hit on every single major budget item in the government’s spending bills, but we are arguing the need for journalists to take a deeper, more comprehensive approach to covering what the government spends money on. 

And please, for the love of the possibility of a government that addresses people’s needs, stop only talking to Marc Goldwein!

IMAGE: “Looking east towards 6th Avenue along north (48th Street) side of Fox News building on a snowy afternoon” by Jim Henderson is available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Ethics in GovernmentGovernment CapacityIndependent AgenciesRight-Wing Media

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