Kevin Williamson writes that Republican politicians like Mitch McConnell aren't serious about restraining spending. He specifically cites bits of pork that McConnell is pursuing through the legislative process. Ramesh Ponnuru says not so fast, or at least that conservatives shouldn't focus too much on pork and instead use what influence they have to push reform on more important fiscal issues.
I tend to agree more with Ponnuru. I'm no fan of pork, and I think that it probably redirects federal resources in inefficient ways. I also don't think pork is the most pressing fiscal issue and it is not nearly as effective a political issue some think. I keep hearing McCain blathering on about earmarks and Obama noting that earmarks were only a small part of the federal budget. McCain kept trying to plug back by talking about this or that federal project (he seemed especially upset about some kind of light bulb in Illinois), but, in the midst of a financial crisis and a recession, most people recognized that the kinds of grants McCain was talking about weren't the biggest problem in their economic lives.
There is a school of thought that says that if we can't stop the kinds of federal spending that go to bike paths, bridges to nowhere, and such, then we will never get a sustainable federal budget. I wonder if the reverse isn't true and pork fighting is getting in the way of more important priorities. Maybe talking about pork is a way for politicians to seem fiscally conservative without having to actually vote for entitlement reforms or explain market-oriented health care reform . There might, in some circumstances, be a direct conflict between solvency and pork fighting. One can imagine a close vote on entitlement reform (means-testing, raising retirement ages, whatever) that might pass only in return for funding some local project (or fifty local projects). In any case, the public's attention is limited, and conservative writers and populariziers and Republican politicians would be better off focusing their energy on the kinds of policies that offer people higher living standards in the short and medium term and a program that puts the federal government's books somewhere in the neighborhood of balance. Reducing domestic discretionary spending on local projects should be part of that project, but the political energy spent on fighting pork should be proportional to the kinds of savings to be gotten as compared to the savings that might be gotten from other cuts or reforms.