10. Surface Transportation Board
You may not have been on a long-distance train recently, but chances are you use goods that arrived at their destination by rail. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics notes that rail shipments have been increasing as more businesses turn to rail to move items such as vehicle parts and cars. This regulatory body within the Department of Transportation assures our rail system runs smoothly by tending to railroad rate and service disputes and proposed transactions such as mergers. It also helps oversee Amtrak and regulates other modes of transportation such as intercity passenger buses and some trucking and moving van companies. But the STB’s decisions also have an impact on the environment; take, for example, a proposed rail line. If no thought is put into the new line, the surrounding environment could suffer, and the same goes for the transportation of items that nobody wants in their backyard, such as solid waste.
9. Bureau of the Public Debt
You can’t escape talk of the federal debt these days, but you’ve probably never heard of the Bureau of the Public Debt. A small Department of Treasury agency, the bureau is responsible for borrowing the money that’s needed to operate the federal government, and it also accounts for the debt that results from that borrowing. You’ve played a part in this process if you’ve ever bought a savings bond as a gift or received one from a family member. Essentially, the bureau is tasked with selling Treasury securities and savings bonds (paying interest to investors) and redeeming investors’ securities when it’s time to pay back the loans. The bureau plays a consumer education function as well — you can go to the official site and pull up detailed information about the public debt outstanding by day or a specified timeframe. If you’re so inclined, you can make a donation to help pay down the national debt, which stood at more than $14 trillion as of August 2011 (believe it or not, the U.S. Treasury takes in about $2 million a year in public donations targeted to pay down the debt.) The bureau also keeps track of the United States’ debt history. For example, by 1791 the United States already had accrued $75.4 million in debt, thanks to expenses associated with the Revolutionary War.
8. Interagency Alternative Dispute Resolution Working Group
Though partisan disagreements make the headlines and airwaves, this group with the unwieldy name focuses on ways to keep disputes out of the courtroom, saving money and time. The group works to advance ADR, which is a non-litigious method to address workplace and regulatory enforcement disputes, as well as claims against the government. The attorney general leads the group, which traces its roots to the 1970s. Since then, ADR processes have been used to revise emergency planning procedures after 9/11, to resolve public risks associated with carbon monoxide poisoning, and to help coordinate local and federal efforts related to blighted industrial lands. Agencies have seen significant cost savings, according to the ADR. For example, the Social Security Administration said each case typically costs $40,000 using the “traditional” Equal Employment Opportunity process; by contrast, using ADR methods costs $50 to $1,500 per case.
7. Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration
Because 80 percent of us live far removed from the farm in what’s considered urban or suburban areas, it’s easy to forget how big the agriculture industry really is; according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States' share of the market for global agriculture goods exceeds 20 percent. This agency within the USDA’s marketing and regulatory programs arm protects producers by assuring that trade practices remain fair and free of fraud, and it protects consumers by, among other tasks, regulating the handling and quality standards for the grain and related products that eventually make it to our plates. The current Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration was formed in the mid-1990s, though its origins date to the early part of the 20th century when grain, poultry and meat packing operations were first being regulated. In fiscal year 2011 around $40.2 million was appropriated for the agency, which contributes to the health and efficiency of a $280 billion industry employing some 1.6 million workers.
6. Japan-United States Friendship Commission
In the middle of the last century, Japan-U.S. relations could hardly be called “friendly.” But through the initiatives like those deployed by the commission, the latter half of the 20th century represented a much more peaceful relationship between the countries. According to information from the commission’s site, a number of scholars had for years been lobbying for Japanese language and area studies programs to promote cultural understanding. In 1975, this independent federal agency came to be and has since evolved to take on another dimension: that of policy research in addition to training and resources for Japanese studies in the U.S. and on the flipside, American studies in Japan. The commission’s annual expenses are just over $2 million, but it uses no funds from the general revenues of the U.S. budget; instead it operates from interest earnings of a trust fund — the outgrowth of payments Japan made to the U.S. for assistance, including repayments for postwar economic assistance. According to its official site, the trust is currently valued at nearly $40 million.
5. Open World Leadership Program
You or someone you know may have participated in a foreign exchange program; think of Open World as an exchange program in hyper-drive. Since 1999, the program administered by the D.C.- and Moscow-based Open World Center has educated and empowered 17,000 young leaders from Eurasian countries, including Georgia, Ukraine, Russia and Moldova. When these leaders arrive in the United States, they’re matched with their American counterparts, be it a judge, mayor, entrepreneur or teacher. According to Open World’s official site, the implications of this real-world knowledge gathering are significant. Not only do participants take practical solutions back to their home countries, but they also take concepts and democratic principles that can have a transformative effect on their countries. The center also notes there is an economic development impact for the U.S. as well, in that more than 800 associations and community groups, and 1,900 cities participate in the program, and more than 75 percent of its appropriated grant funds are infused back into the American economy.
4. Indian Arts and Crafts Board
Not since the Great Depression have poverty rates hovered in the 25 percent range, but for Native Americans, such a statistic is still a reality; according to U.S. Census data, American Indians and Alaska Natives make up less than 2 percent of the population, but around a quarter live at or below federal poverty guidelines. The Department of the Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board is one effort to combat such grim statistics, as it promotes economic development for members of federally recognized tribes. The board provides advice for tribal members’ arts and crafts businesses, and it also operates three regional museums — in Montana, Oklahoma and South Dakota — showcasing tribal artisans’ work. The board also enforces the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which carries penalties — including up to $1 million in fines — for business owners who advertise their products as Indian-made when, in fact, they are not the work of members of a recognized tribe or those certified as “Indian artisans” by a tribe.
3. International Broadcasting Bureau
You’ve probably never heard of this entity, but you’ve almost certainly heard of some of its networks, notably Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. And while many people associate the VOA with American radio broadcasts aimed at Germany and Japan during World War II, there is no shortage of oppression in the world today. In 2010, Reporters Without Borders ranked 178 countries according to press freedom and found nearly one-third of the countries had “difficult” or “very serious” situations that included censorship and/or imprisonment of journalists. The IBB provides objective, free and professional news and information to more than 165 million people weekly in nearly 60 languages. Its largest audiences are found in the most oppressive countries, including Indonesia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq. The International Broadcasting Bureau’s estimated 2010 fiscal year budget was around $750 million, but can vary considerably, depending upon factors such as America’s strategic interests.
2. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission
This quasi-judicial agency within the Department of Justice has negotiated with foreign governments on behalf of United States citizens since the 1950s, assuming functions once handled by the now-defunct War Claims Agency. Think of it as a small-claims court on a national level. For example, the commission helped forge an agreement with Germany to pay reparations to Holocaust survivors and worked with Vietnam to compensate soldiers who were mistreated as prisoners of war. Operating with a requested budget of $2.1 million for FY 2012, the commission has been responsible for returning billions of dollars representing 43 claims programs against more than a dozen countries, including Iran, the Soviet Union, Cuba and Vietnam. Open claims include those against Albania, in response to property being seized when the communists assumed power at the end of World War II, and those who lost family members or were injured as the result of attacks spearheaded by Libyan terrorists.
1. Millennium Challenge Corporation
Since its inception following a strong bipartisan congressional vote in 2004, this independent foreign aid agency has allocated nearly $7.5 billion to spur economic development, resulting in 87,000 farmers being trained and more than 2,500 miles of road being designed and constructed. Its grants, known as “compacts” or smaller “threshold programs” support projects in a variety of sectors, including water supply and sanitation, health care and educational access, and land rights. But it’s not enough for a country to demonstrate need; those wishing to partner with the agency on compacts must hail from a country with a sound, non-corrupt government, economic freedom and commitment to its citizens (read: no human rights abuses). Such partnerships are designed to open up markets, increase living standards and promote economic growth.