By Jeb Bladine • President / Publisher • 

Bladine: Financial sausage in federal politics

The numbers are mind-boggling.

A U.S. Senate vote approved $1 trillion for infrastructure spending, but Democrats seek $3.5 trillion while some negotiators suggest a $2 trillion compromise. Swirling around that intrigue are volatile debates on proposals for a $3.7 trillion federal budget and a $28 trillion federal debt limit.

Comedians are making jokes, but there actually is discussion of striking a $1 trillion platinum coin so the Federal Reserve can avoid default on the federal debt. Apparently, the Treasury has limits on distribution of paper money and other coins, but no limit on the face value or number of platinum coins.

Imagine the angst when some federal courier accidentally drops one of those through a sewer grate!

Big numbers are nothing new to government, but government has become progressively more complex and opaque. In contrast, I think back to my first venture into the depths of federal bureaucracy seeking information about distribution of General Revenue Sharing (GRS) funds.

Established in 1972, GRS combined highly efficient IRS collection of progressive income taxes with a formulized system of grants based in part on state and local financial needs. With no strings attached, state and local officials made spending decisions while GRS officials carried out the distribution plan.

I set aside hours one day to search out a federal source for details about GRS funding to Oregon, Yamhill County and local cities. My starting-point telephone number drew a quick answer, and with false confidence I said, “I’m calling for Mrs. Johnson.”

“Oh, yes,” said a cheery voice on the other end, “she’s right here … just a sec.”

Fifteen minutes later, all my financial questions answered, I asked Mrs. Johnson about the presumably huge GRS bureaucracy handling billions of dollars in annual grants. “Oh, we have about 100 people here in our office,” she said, adding that administrative costs of the GRS program were the lowest in the federal government.

GRS distributed more than $83 billion to cities, counties and states between 1972 and 1986 – that’s $314 billion in 2008 dollars, and (I’m estimating) about $380 billion in 2021 dollars. So, given the costs of federal grant projects from massive waste and “prevailing wage” requirements, the $1 trillion infrastructure bill approved last month by the U.S. Senate isn’t so surprising.

But needless to say, I won’t likely call federal bureaucracies this month seeking quick and straight-forward details about that $1 trillion, that $3.7 trillion, that $28 trillion or any other federal trillion. I’ll just watch and try to sort out the evolving news about today’s sausage-making world of federal politics.

Jeb Bladine can be reached at or 503-687-1223.


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