"How do you get rid of a pork barrel?" Carlos Campbell asked. By hiring "a vegetarian like me to run it."
As assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, Campbell directs the Economic Development Administration, an agency designed to revitalize economically depressed areas. It's an agency, he said, that "has clearly outlived its usefulness."
The reason, said Campbell, is that President Reagan's economic recovery program is built on reducing the growth of government spending and thus reduce pressure on the credit markets. Thus, agencies like EDA should be eliminated, because states and local governments are capable of taking over the agency's job.
The former author and scriptwriter has a word for the practice of allowing federal agencies like the EDA to continue. "It's called ecocide--killing the economy."
Not everyone agrees with Campbell's assessment. Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), who chairs the House economic development subcommittee, said, "Mr. Campbell is a bit like a crusader with a mission."
The agency needs to be revamped and improved, not killed, said Oberstar. Noting the high unemployment rate, Oberstar likened the Reagan administration's proposal to the "old-time medicine" of bleeding the patient.
Born in 1965 out of the Great Society, EDA was designed to help areas suffering from high unemployment and low living standards. In the belief that these areas could not attract or keep the private industry necessary for long-term prosperity and jobs, the program offered grants, loans and loan guarantees to encourage business to operate there.
During the next decade, the program grew to include public works grants. And to gain more support for the program, sponsors also kept increasing the areas that could qualify for assistance, from 12.5 percent of the country at the start to about 80 percent now.
The program reached its peak during the Carter administration, when its annual appropriation rose to about $600 million. The program's fiscal 1981 appropriation was $624.7 million, but President Reagan requested a rescission that cut the budget to $436.8 million. Last year, the staff was slashed from about 800 to 460 people.
EDA's budget for this year is $253 million, despite a Reagan administration request that no money be appropriated this year or next. But Campbell said that as long as Congress appropriates money, the agency will spend it, denying charges that EDA is deliberately slowing down awards. "We're not impounding the funds," he said.
Campbell said he is just scrutinizing grants and loans more carefully, something he claims was never done before. He has the Commerce Department's inspector general examining numerous policies, relationships and awards made under the Carter administration, when, he claimed, Democratic areas made out "like bandits" and Republican areas "got the short end of the stick."
Campbell said EDA used to be "a good ol' boy network where someone well connected politically got in the door and got the loans" even if they lacked the ability to pay. EDA has a 40 percent delinquency rate on loans.
And Campbell, whose father worked up from being a penniless Panamanian immigrant to the presidency of a savings and loan bank, said EDA is "not a job-creating agency." The private sector, not the government, should create jobs, he said.
"I'll grant that the EDA program is not perfect," said Oberstar. But he said Campbell is ignoring the "large number of obvious success stories." Oberstar also argued that the number of delinquent EDA loans should be expected to be higher than in commercial banking. "These loans are made in areas of the country that have greater than normal economic problems. That's why a specific program is needed."
Oberstar has sponsored a bill designed to address some of the criticisms by streamlining the grant-making process, placing stricter controls on funds and changing the way areas qualify. The measure has been approved by the House Public Works and Transportation Committee and is awaiting action by the full House.
"Even if the Reagan administration economic recovery plan were to work," there would still be pockets of poverty in the country that would need special economic development assistance, Oberstar said.
Campbell said he knows that the EDA program has strong support in Congress, particularly the House, whose members "don't give a damn about the president's economic recovery program to the extent to which they should. They're a bunch of renegades," he said.
"Most of the Republicans and some Democrats are reasonable. But I think if there's an element of integrity, it's more in the Senate than in the House," he said.
Part of the problem, Campbell said, is that the "the American body politic is not sophisticated enough" to recognize the congressmen who place "their reelection above the interest of the nation. They don't know what they're really electing." It will be an "uphill battle because enough members of Congress have been able to pull the wool over the eyes of their constituents."
Given the prospect that Congress might continue to approve and fund EDA, Campbell said he would "advise the president to veto any bill. I would advise the president to get rid of EDA at any costs."
"There's an expression in Liberia, where the folks say, 'I came to go,' " Campbell said. "That's the way I looked at this job. I came to go."