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On Pork

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.

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Discussions - 19 Comments

You must have missed listening to Rush Limbaugh today. I was housecleaning and had my radio on so he could keep me company while I puttered. Every time I heard him he was talking about a new Angelo Codevilla article in the American Spectator: "America's Ruling Class -- And the Perils of Revolution". All of Rush's fans must be reading it since it is so hard to open, but here is a link -- http://spectator.org/archives/2010/07/16/americas-ruling-class-and-the/print

It is, apparently, all about how our government really works. Maybe it is even true. Since the last thing I heard Rush say was that if anyone (journalists, organizational websites and even blogs!) is ignoring or disparaging the piece, then you can know where they stand on this matter, I thought NLT really ought to take it up. Yes, I am grinning as I write.

No one dares reduce local spending of federal money, as that is really the kind of spending that keeps a politician in office. It is what makes all politics local. Pork-barreling is really in the eyes of the beholder. Just ask Robert Byrd how a guy who raids the nation's coffers on behalf of his locale can stay in office. Oh, I guess you can't, but if you could and he was being honest, he'd could tell you. He was no slouch when it came to spending on entitlements, too. I don't see that he really did all that much for economy of West Virginia beyond bringing in federal dollars.

It would be easier to ignore the pork-barrel stuff if it were not the only type of legislative spending we seem likely to be able to stop at all. What cuts and reforms are we likely to see in the near future? I don't see much hope of any.

I seem to have misplaced Limbaugh. He changed stations in he market that I live in and I'm too lazy to look up his new station.

If that kind of local spending were our worst problem, it would still be worth tackling, but it we woud not be facing an economic crisis. In the very short term, I would favor reforms to (hopefully) bring down the rate of medical inflation and reform entitlements on the lines I mentioned. It won't happen any time soon, but if it doens't happen, there wo't be any room in the budget for pork. I would also be for cutting pork too.

There is pork and then there is pork.

Water projects, veterans' hospitals, and elaborations upon inter-state highways may be ill-advised in many cases. However, the geographic scope of most watersheds and most of the Inter-state milage transcend state boundaries. As long as we maintain such institutions as veterans' hospitals, the federal government is the appropriate proprietor.

When it gets troublesome when you have ad hoc disbursements to state and local authorities, which not only distort the preference structure of these authorities (would the State of Alaska or the municipal borough in question have even considered footing the bill for a white elephant like the bridge to nowhere?), it also renders government less transparent as local authorities can offer their excuses based on the conditions imposed by superordinate authorities.

It is also troublesome when it acts to distort the institutional mission of philanthropies, which have to respect conditions imposed by the likes of Barney Frank and which are less accountable to their donors.

There will always be room in the budget for pork. That's what I am saying. As long as congressmen, in particular, but senators, too, are elected by people based on geography, there will be pork in the form of money brought to the district or state. Those guys keep national power based on what they bring back. As long as they keep bringing money back for projects -- all I can say is that their political transgressions have to get mighty heinous or they themselves seriously hubristic before the locals will turn them out if they do bring money back.

Public works funded by the federal government used to be projects neither states nor local government could manage, preferably of national benefit, and that no private entity could find profit in. Not any more. This administration seems inclined to making everything a public works project, even health care, LEST someone make a profit. Given the idea of America as the land of opportunity, no wonder that injures the sensibilities.

The problem of course, is the inconsistency of presenting your party as a party of fiscal restraint, then acting in the opposite fashion. Republicans have done a wonderful job of shooting themselves in the foot recently with the free-spending Bush years, and the moral issues that have assailed a party that presents itself as the party of moral strength. Such actions have in the past, and will continue to alienate voters.

I agree Pete...but the problem isn't pork qua pork, after all Obama was right that it is only a small part of the federal budget. The corollary of pork is legistlation specifically written for the benefit of home state corporate interests. A much broader view of pork might demonstrate that all legistlation is written as pork(particularized interest)

"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)."

Sure and if there is enough pork in it, it might end up being unpopular which will result in an even more pork ladden replacement. That is there is no real reform in such an environment. Frankly and I am only really speaking for myself, I am not so anti-single payer that I consider the bill that passed an improvement. Single payer would have had the beauty of simplicity and clarity.

Would it really have been better to have a republican version of the healthcare bill with a different arrangement of pork?

I don't know, it is possible that "better" in the national or generalized sense is just naive. The devil is in the details, and it certainly isn't better for retirement age folks for the retirement age to be raised, but it would seem to be best for everyone else, provided your parents or those most elder in your familly were well enough off not to be directly impacted. Old folks with reason would look at things and think, well AARP influence was outbid by pork. It is like the Cap and Trade that was almost passed because they were going to hand out a ton of carbon credits to enough folks who would otherwise complain. I think Goldman Sachs might have made a killing trading those.

Given the fact that congressmen doesn't really read the bills, but rather get told how to position themselves to suit particularized interests it is no wonder that trust in congress is at such a low. It is at a low because there is no longer a very real sense that "better" and "good" or "reform" really suit mainstreet. In fact there is even a sense that "mainstreet" is too broad a term. Almost all bills have something good for "mainstreet", something good for "wall street" something good for a "sector".

The question I think a lot of folks ask, am I that "sector"? You know I think there are a lot of Bull stories on wall street, I think there are a lot of "sectors" that are good. There are a lot of "sectors" that are no good. It could be that I am just seeing particularized interests and have thus lost the ability to see generalized interests.

In the hayday of american trust in congress I think I would have agreed with you, but pork critically undermines the credibility of the proposition that a purple unicorn by the name of general welfare/good for america/good in the generalized national sense exists.

There is a sense that what is doing the convincing isn't policy vision but sectarian and localized. Kate's view that all politics is local predominates (and as Obama also points out in the Audacity of Hope, a congressman is more popular in his district than congress generically.)

As the faith in a generic or generalized national interest wanes and particularized, sectarian, localized, sector specific interests appear to predominate. Pork barrel spending thus inclines an already skeptical america towards particulars. And since american citizens aren't going to bother reading bills that congress doesn't read, the default assumption is that regulation is simply lobby-centric pork.

I am not sure I believe this rant/analysis completely, Haywards mention of Rousseau and Holmes got me thinking of the primary tension they both wrestled with, namely the General Will vs. the particularized will(the interests of factions). The particularized will or usefulness for a narrow function, sector company or demographic is easier to identify(I admit that the General Welfare is half voodo, or perhaps a sentiment)

There is quite a bit of doubt about General Will, General Welfare, National Interest or if such even exists. When public scepticism is so high, pork, which undermines faith in the good faith and fair dealing of elected officials, should be avoided at almost all costs.

Not my trade, of course. While this sort of thing is an aspect of the advertising campaigns politicians run, I would hazard a guess that their tie to rank-and-file voters is made not by pork but by common-and-garden constituent service that does not generate economic inefficiencies. I suspect the utility of pork is in maintaining relationships with local politicos. Alphonse d'Amato successfully bought off the political opposition in New York for 18 years with these methods. Also, journalists are pleased to act as mouthpieces for constituencies on the dole. A reviewer of one of Ed Koch's memoirs offered that the lesson therein was that the principal motor of the behavior of politicians was the prospect of 'nasty little news stories' which leave a cloud around the politician even though only a small minority of voters have a dog in the conflict in question. Imagine if my local congressman told a delegation of dairy farmers that the regime of subsidies, cartels, and production controls currently in effect was economically inefficient and injurious to consumers. The result? Nasty little news stories.

Concision. It's great stuff.

Wade Sikes, no argument, except my local congressman (R) picks up lots of loose voters because he brings home money or the district in the form highway development money. The local unions love him for it. He first ran a self-term-limiter, but that that campaign promise faded into obscurity several elections back.

A.D. no real argument with what you say. However, doesn't constituent service also run to specialized legislation to benefit the locals, which equals earmarks? Or pork, depending on how you look at it.

I had in mind interceding with constituents with federal agencies. In certain circumstances, this can be a corrupt enterprise ("the Keating Five"), but I think as a rule it is not.

Don't you think that kind of intervention can look like corruption even when it is not? I think it is a matter of point of view and maybe even media spin when the intervention becomes public knowledge.

I am congenially acquainted with a fellow who is a senior aide to a U.S. Senator. He has said to me that the problem is that federal agencies have their standard procedures and priorities and that the net result is that matters are tossed in the In Box which require immediate attention. Calling the right official and getting the ball rolling is a function of his office. The agency he mentioned as an example was the Consular Service, not a big distributor of pork.

Touche Art. typically my first, second, third and forth drafts simply manage an increase in pork and flab, since blog comments are first drafts you are actually seeing some concision. Mark Twain said "its not too hard to get words down on paper, the hard part is keeping the right ones."

Legal writting must be concise, if so then the question presented is: Does earmark spending corode public faith and confidence in the general welfare, when "insert litany of current events" predisposes the public to distrust of elected officials?

The greatest danger in errosion of faith in the general welfare(if it is not an end in itself in a Kantian/Rousseauian sense) is simply that you won't be able to sell anything as good or necessary. The sense that you have to bribe the particularized wills of congressmen will predominate.

Indeed your post Pete requires a calculation, a valuation, that you have to already be on board with as good or tending to the general welfare, (means testing or raising the retirement age). You are a convinced advocate who is willing to bribe the jury(congress) that justice may be done. The belief that the ends justifies the means among the non-converted public contributes to a sense that the means are justifying the end.

Simply and concisely, every seller needs a buyer, and the one selling because he believes that the ends justifies the means, finds buyers whose indifference to that set of "ends" is offset by the "means". The general sense that legistlation is not passed on more universal merits enervates.

Wade, there are several problems with pork and the process itself can be corrupting or speed up the corruption that tends to come with power. You insert a few items of pork to pass a good and important bill. It is probably worth the tradeoff to hive a small federal grant to some local historical society in return for an improved tax system. But, as a party's agenda becomes exhausted, the pork becomes an end to maintaining power absent a compelling agenda. Pork becomes a substitute for an agenda. The thing is, pork is actually the smaller problem here. The bigger problem is the lack of an agenda on the issues of the day. Building your agenda around fighting pork is just another inadequate substitute for crafting and explaining the collection of policies that you need. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try to reform the earmark process, but trying to regain your purity on fiscal issues PRIMARILY by campaigning against pork (or even with worthwhile procedural initiatives) is a shows a lack of prudence as a matter of both finance and politics. It is however a good issue for a presidential candidate who is uninterested in economic issues and who wants to engage in moralistic posturing as a way to avoid having to actually defend a coherent economic agenda.

Individuals each have their own reasons for being alienated from a party, but when one looks at the drubbings the Republicans took in 2006 and 2008, it takes alot of creativity to reinterpret the issue environments of those years in such a way that the Republican positions and campaigns on social issue were the problem.

Don't know why you still want to beat up on McCain. I think the only good thing about his campaign was the general coherence on pork and McCain-Feingold and his old-school notion of National Interest /General Welfare and putting what is best for america and americans first, or at least making a good faith attempt at it.

Now Mitch McConnel won his case before the Supreme Court in McConnel v. Federal Election Commision. The ACLU, NAACP, NRA and a good mix of everyone wrote amicus briefs in his favor and in favor of corporate speech, and it had a lot of ennemies from across the political spectrum. Under the bill the FEC had fined the spectrum from Swift Boat Veterans for truth, to MoveOn.org.

McCain said: "'By the time I became a leading advocate of campaign finance reform, I had come to appreciate that the public's suspicions were not always mistaken. Money does buy access in Washington, and access increases influence that often results in benefiting the few at the expense of the many.'

I suppose if you want to win some facile points you could quote Obama and McCain in support of what they identify as a problem.

Obama after all did scold the justices in the state of the union on the issue, So long as this is fresh on some minds this makes Mitch McConnel a hero of sorts.

Mitch McConnel pro-pork, pro-issue advocacy and soft money. Maybe he's a great guy. But I could dislike McCain without questioning his character and commitment to the General Welfare.

Related to this theme(theory follows fact), I am still trying to figure out how Alvin Greene is possible.

.John, I go after McCain's 2008 campaign for lots of reasons but the OVEREMPHASIS on pork disgusted me because it was so clearly a cynical substitute for having and explaining a relevant economic policy. These kinds of cheap, symbolism-driven approaches are destructive. They waste the problem's attention and don't move the ball forward on policy even if you win the election, but the public is just as likely to see through them and elect candidates who will follow policies that will make things worse. Not that I think McCain cares or cared much about that. It was simply a bunch of stuff he was saying that he hoped would get him elected President (like his change of mind on the Bush tax cuts.) On domestic policy, McCain regularly changes his opinions to suit his immediate electoral needs. His position on amnesty comes to mind.

That isn't to say that McCain is an opportunist in all things. He was consistent, principled and honorable on Iraq. But that doesn't mean that I have to pretend not to notice all of the cynical repositioning he does.

Balancing the budget? the debt is 13 trillion and growing and the GNP is 14 trillion and probably shrinking. After all the other spending is done its shocking we can even pay the interest. There is no way short of a regime change, which means we simply refuse to be held accountable for the prior regimes reckless promises, that we can ever pay off the national debt.
Pork barreling is a small symptom of a larger state of corruption in American Politics. To rally around it would be to attempt to demolish a house by removing a piece of vinyl siding. I do agree that bridges to nowhere ect make for fascinating political self gratification. I have yet to ever hear someone mention a project like this as a reason for why they support a candidate. I suppose that it goes beyond the masses in that the project is money in the bank for local business leaders who in turn endorse said candidate leading to the general unexplained feeling joe six pack has about a certain politician.

In the interests of precision...

The figure of $13.2 tn in public debt includes $4.7 tn in the 'Government Accounts Series', i.e. Treasury securities issued as parking spaces for payroll tax revenue. These are not marketed or held by either the public or the Federal Reserve (though I think the accounting convention is followed of interest accrued). The true figure for outstanding federal debt is $8.5 tn.

There were back-to-back recessions in 1945-49, 1957-60, and 1980-82. This is a possibility now. However, the economy is not contracting at this time, and has been expanding for about 14 months.

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