Thursday, June 27, 2019

Government shouldn't shun our generosity -- June 27, 2019 column


The Independence Day fireworks display on the National Mall will last about 35 minutes this year, twice the length of the typical show.

The bigger and better display is thanks to donations by two private fireworks companies of equipment and personnel worth $750,000 to the National Park Service.

“We wanted to do this as a gift to America,” the president of one of the companies told The Washington Post.

It probably didn’t hurt that President Donald Trump is personally orchestrating 4th of July festivities, and the fireworks industry wants an exemption from the next round of 
Trump tariffs on Chinese goods, which includes fireworks.

Be that as it may, it’s baffling the government can accept donations of fireworks but not of diapers.

As the administration planned the July 4th  extravaganza, we learned hundreds of migrant children were being held in dirty, overcrowded conditions at a Customs and Border Protection facility in Clint, Texas.

“`There Is a Stench'” The New York Times headline read on a June 21 story that detailed how attorneys who visited Clint said babies lacked diapers and children of various ages had inadequate food and water and no access to baths, soap, toothbrushes or toothpaste.

The facility built for about 100 adults temporarily had been stretched to house hundreds more children for weeks.

Then we saw the heart-breaking photo of the young father and daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande for a better life.  

The administration says it has been overwhelmed by an influx of migrants at the border. The Border Patrol transferred some of the children at Clint out and then back as other facilities became overcrowded.

The White House and Congress couldn’t get their act together to provide humanitarian relief -- so Texans did.  

Last Sunday, Austin Savage and five friends went to a Target in El Paso and spent $340 on diapers, wipes, soap and toys, the Texas Tribune reported. But when they tried to deliver the goods, the detention center lobby was closed and no one would come to the door.

Border Patrol agents in the parking lot saw, but ignored, them, Savage said.

Then the friends realized they weren’t the first to try to help. A plastic bag near the lobby door held toothpaste and soap and a note: “I heard y’all need soap + toothpaste for kids.”

Savage returned on Monday to deliver the items and again was ignored, NPR reported.

State Rep. Terry Canales, a Democrat from South Texas, asked the government for a list of acceptable donations. “They do not accept donations,” he tweeted. “How ridiculous is this?”

Why no donations? One weak, but possible explanation cited is the Antideficiency Act of 1870, which says the government can’t spend beyond the funds Congress appropriates and cannot accept donations of personal services that have not been approved by Congress.

When I took a look at the law, though, I found no references to goods, just to services.

And a 2008 Department of Homeland Security directive says: “DHS may accept gifts to carry out program functions regardless of whether or not appropriated funds are available for that purpose, provided such expenditures are not barred by law or regulation.”

Companies and wealthy individuals have long opened their wallets to help the government. People have donated millions of dollars to the Treasury to help pay down the national debt.

After an earthquake shook the Washington Monument in 2012, billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein donated $7.5 million to match the federal funds Congress had allocated for repairs.

Rubenstein has also donated $4.5 million to the National Zoo for the giant panda program and $13.5 million to the National Archives, among other projects.

Few can make such grand gifts, but ordinary Americans are generous, too.

The good news is conditions in Clint reportedly have improved. Journalists who visited Wednesday said monitors were watching the kids, and officials say they have enough supplies. They’re studying whether they can legally accept donations.

That our government would have a double standard allowing it to accept donations of fireworks and not of diapers is absurd. Worse, it’s obscene.

The policy must change quickly.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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