[A letter sent to my local newspaper, Foster's Daily Democrat.]
A recent letter in Foster's by Sean O’Kane sings the praises of the "Travel Promotion Act" (TPA). He lauds Senator Jeanne Shaheen for supporting it, and excoriates then-Senator Scott Brown for voting against it back in 2010. Mr. O'Kane's cheerleading for the TPA should not go unchallenged.
The TPA subsidizes the private tourism industry by imposing a new "Mickey Mouse tax" on some foreign visitors to the US. It's not surprising that the tourism industry, at least the part of it that's politically well-connected, is largely in favor of this handout. (The major driving force behind the bill was Nevada Senator Harry Reid, with the enthusiastic backing of Vegas casinos, the Disney Corporation, etc.) The hand-waving assurances that the benefits will eventually "trickle down" to the rest of us are dubious at best.
Is the TPA, as claimed, vital to the American tourism industry? This doesn't pass a simple credibility check: TPA has only existed for a few years, and somehow the tourism industry managed to get along without it for the previous couple of centuries.
If travel promotion has the massive benefits that Mr. O'Kane alleges, certainly it could and should be carried by out by the private tourism industry itself. The Federal Government has no magical powers in this field, other than extracting extra fees from foreign travelers and funneling the money to the TPA slush fund. The "success" of the TPA will simply lead to more and more industries lining up to get their similar government largesse.
O'Kane paints the opposition to TPA as the product of scary "far-right, extreme political organizations". These organizations are easy enough to track down, and include the Heritage Foundation and the Club For Growth. Mud-slinging labels aside, there's nothing particularly scary about them, except that they consistently oppose corporate welfare programs like TPA. Apparently that's a right-wing position these days.
In its brief life, the TPA has behaved poorly, even by government standards. A report authored by Senators Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint found a "history of questionable expenditures, lavish spending, inappropriate lobbying activity and corporate cronyism" at the "Brand USA" corporation established by the TPA legislation. A lavish party held at the British Maritime Museum for "560 VIP guests" cost hundreds of thousands; a luxury-suite bash at a Washington Nationals ballgame cost thousands more. (I wasn't invited, were you?) In order to extract "matching funds" from the US Treasury, board members charged their "volunteer" time ($258 per hour), first-class airplane fares, private car services, and more. Even though the TPA legislation banned lobbying activities by Brand USA, the corporation went ahead and bought themselves a Patton Boggs lobbyist anyway.
Unsurprisingly, the Brand USA Board of Directors was found to be stuffed with "heavy contributors to President Obama and Democratic campaigns."
There are more direct ways the Federal Government could promote tourism to the US, mainly by getting out of the way: making visa and customs processes easier, consistent with maintaining security requirements. This would, however, not be something that allows politicians to easily dole out Federal goodies to their corporate buddies/contributors. If Scott Brown and Jeanne Shaheen are truly on opposite sides of this issue, it's a good reason to vote for Brown.