The Anatomy of Pork
06.28.2005 09:44 | DISPATCHES
LA Times reporter Ken Silverstein has a nice, albeit depressing, article on pork barrel politics in the new issue of Harper's (not yet available online).
In small doses, what we call pork isn't automatically a bad thing, and in any event it's pretty hard to wring pork barrel spending completely out of the federalist system. Pork happens because legislators need to get re-elected, and so they seek to maximize benefits for their constituents while shielding them from costs. So they agree, explicitly or implicitly (most often the latter) to vote for infrastructure and development projects in each other's districts. These projects have benefits that are concentrated on a single area, and costs that are spread over all federal taxpayers (take a hard look at your local light rail line and ask yourself if someone 2,000 miles away even knows they are funding it). The result is spiraling federal expenditures, because for every representative the benefits of increased spending outweigh its costs.
Now, sometimes this is good -- worthy programs that benefit minority groups or coalitions are often approved only because of pork barrel horse trading. More often, however, vote trading results in an oversupply of infrastructure (look at urban highways) or wastes of money that border on outright fraud (Robert Byrd of West Virginia got his landlocked state a Coast Guard facility). Often pork goes to development projects, and the federal government is famously bad at economic development--a task better left to states and localities.
Silverstein makes three very good points:
- Pork has exploded because it is an increasingly important part of getting representatives re-elected. The Republicans now give choice seats on the Approprations committee to representatives who might be vulnerable in the next election cycle. A rep who eked out a victory one year can ride comfortably to re-election if he or she delivers some highway projects in the interim.
- There would be less pork if individual legislators were accountable for their wasteful earmarks. But although a paper trail exists--every earmark has to be requested in writing by a legislator--the requests are exempt from the freedom of information act. So earmarks simply "appear" in bills, absent an author.
- The rapid growth of the lobbying industry in the last four years has tracked directly with the explosion in pork. Having the right lobbyists means A LOT in getting your earmark approved.
It seems to me that the best single step the government could take would be to remove the FOIA exmeption from earmark requests. Absent that, any calls to reduce earmarking and waste are just rhetoric -- Silverstein quotes the late Illinois Senator Paul Douglas, who said that when his colleagues shouted for an end to pork they are "like drunkards who shout for temperance in the intervals between cocktails."