Tuesday, October 19, 2021

What Wilbur Ross Did During Her Term

With her upbeat, up-beat ways and pure spunk, outgoing U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross may look back on her new office with mixed emotions: Just imagine all that money spent over the past 10 months — and all that other stuff — could’ve ended up either helping tens of millions of Americans get off the dole or padding the bank accounts of billionaires. Here’s a look at some of the programs she oversaw during her term, and at the results.


For months, and seemingly forever, Dan Steinbach spent the majority of his work hours at his independent tax preparation business. There was no way he could survive without the government’s help. Steinbach needed one thing: a tax refund. “I was hearing all these great things about them,” said Steinbach, who lives in California. “They’re giving your money back to you!” Unfortunately, his dreams were dashed: in March, the Internal Revenue Service told him his refund had been delayed because the money came from programs that Ross funded in an effort to combat a multi-year program, called the Cash for Clunkers. More than $2 billion in rebates were given to 35 million people who spent $2.3 billion in consumer goods as part of the Cash for Clunkers program, which expired in August 2009. It promised to pay out rebates of $4,500 for buying gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs and $3,500 for buying fuel-efficient cars. Ross’s office actually opened a cash-for-clunkers tax refund center for people like Steinbach who were waiting for their checks.


The Department of Commerce’s cash-for-clunkers fund didn’t end up helping Steinbach, but it did make about a billion dollars available to other programs. The Brookings Institution estimated that more than $1.3 billion was spent in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, and Wisconsin; more than $350 million was released in Idaho and Utah; more than $350 million was applied for in Georgia, Hawaii, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin; and hundreds of millions more were spent in other states. According to analysis done by the Congressional Budget Office, the majority of these payments, nearly $850 million, went to individuals and corporations as a result of federal subsidies under programs administered by Ross’s department. The remaining payments, $290 million, went to support state and local transportation budgets.


The former Georgian governor and presidential candidate failed to take advantage of another program that was named for him — a program, called “Federal Emergency Action.” In addition to the Hurricane Harvey recovery and ongoing opioid epidemic, the program paid out a record $6.1 billion to pay for state and local needs after Hurricane Florence. Hurricane Matthew hit Georgia in 2016 and Ross’s department gave about $800 million to reimburse farmers for losses from a fall storm. A bill in Congress, designed to respond to an exchange of hot air between Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, not-so-coincidentally included the Florida-based program. Ross’s office also received $2.5 billion to pay for activities created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Most of that money went to a program that supported small businesses, and helped cities purchase sewer and water systems. Another program aimed to “invest in job creation and economic growth” through green investment schemes, but Ross’s department spent about $450 million of the stimulus package on infrastructure. And $318 million went to help community service organizations run programs like “green jobs, job training, expanded broadband access, retirement planning, and housing preservation.”


The Agriculture Department’s risk-management program, known as “SmartWay,” paid out some $1.6 billion in incentives to farmers who plant nonfood crops like sunflowers and rice. One $300 million payment was given to a farmer in Elko, Nevada, who was trying to revive a New Mexico mining town that was devastated by a water contamination scandal. However, Ross’s office received a complaint about a Colorado project named “Red River Basin Sites and Sites,” which involved the planting of sunflowers. The agency later released a statement clarifying that they had been notified of the objections, but that “despite widespread support, the program was challenged for funding by a group who (over)played their hand.”


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