The “Casino Crony Kickback”: Senate Immigration Bill Expands Wasteful, Flawed Program

The Corker–Hoeven amendment in the Senate’s immigration bill (S. 744) contains loads of pork, special deals, and more spending. A great example is the new “Casino Crony Kickback.”

Inserted by Senators Harry Reid (D) and Dean Heller (R) of Nevada, the provision would allow the U.S. Corporation for Travel Promotion, known as Brand USA, to spend $100 million a year promoting travel to the U.S. Not surprisingly, Las Vegas is one of the top locations advertised by Brand USA.

Brand USA is full of “mismanagement, waste, and cronyism,” as a Senate report last year made clear. Just a few notable instances of such waste include:

  • A lavish dinner party in London that cost over $200,000;
  • $84,000 in legal fees for the development of a lobbying strategy, despite the fact that Brand USA is prohibited by Congress from engaging in lobbying activities; and
  • Board members submitting everything from snacks to travel and accommodations as donations worthy of matching federal funds.

Currently, Brand USA is funded partly by a $10 travel promotion fee on every visitor using the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), the program used to screen and authorize visitors from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) member nations. VWP makes it easier for low-risk, pre-cleared individuals to visit the U.S. and spend their money here. By taxing VWP, Brand USA is certainly not encouraging travel to the U.S.

Of course, just when you thought Congress couldn’t get this issue more wrong, S. 744 allows another “tax” on U.S. companies and consumers. Brand USA currently relies on the $10 ESTA fees to operate, but S. 744 reroutes ESTA fees into the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Trust Fund. So where will Brand USA get its funding? The Travel Promotion Act, which created Brand USA, allows Brand USA to impose an assessment (i.e., a tax) on the U.S. travel and tourism industry if additional funding is needed. U.S. companies will end up passing this added cost on to their customers, both U.S. citizens and foreign visitors.

Instead of expanding U.S. government spending on travel promotion, the U.S. should be returning those responsibilities to the private sector and removing the barriers to visiting the U.S. Beyond abolishing Brand USA, Congress and the Administration should remove other barriers, such as the 100 percent visa interview requirement, which is not risk-based and has only led to long interview wait times and additional expenses. The U.S. should also expand the VWP by removing mandates that are neither cost-effective nor security enhancing.

Immigration reform should make it easier and less expensive for visitors to come to the U.S. Sadly, S. 744 does just the opposite.

Source material can be found at this site.

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