January 16, 2013

Bring back the pork

We were just about to write a piece arguing the same point. Pork is a small price to pay for a working Congress

Brendan Greeley, Business Week -  “I haven’t seen so much lard,” said Ronald Reagan, “since I handed out blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair.” It was March 1987, and the president was using his weekly radio address to blast a highway spending bill he’d just vetoed. The next month 13 Republican senators deserted him by voting to help Democrats override the veto. As the late Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat legendary for bringing money home to West Virginia, told his chamber: “Potholes know no party.”

Congressional pork is hard to define with any precision. One man’s sop is another man’s overpass. But earmarks, the specific instructions that Congress tacks onto its spending bills in order to tell the president exactly where in the country the money they’re approving must be spent, are easy to identify and target. Since the days of Byrd, both Congress and the public have soured on them. After the Republicans took back the House in 2010, Congress banned earmarks outright. In the two years since, it’s done nothing but tie itself up with a supercommittee, a sequester, and continued promises to fix things in the future. Political hacks used to say pork was the political grease that lubricated legislative deals. Only now do we see how true that was. Would it really be so terrible to reintroduce some congressionally sanctioned bribery? That would let members lay claim to the odd million in the interest of striking a deal worth much more.

Tom DeLay, as majority leader for House Republicans in the early 2000s, used the lure of earmarks to enforce party discipline. Democrats in the minority squealed about the practice. When they took power in 2007, they vowed to reform the system, then started attaching members’ names to their earmark requests in 2008 to increase transparency. Perversely, this made earmarks a fat target for the Republicans who’d staked much of the 2010 election on an anti-spending platform.

Since the ban took effect, the appropriations process has “melted down,” says Sean Kelly, a professor at California State University Channel Islands who’s spent his career studying government spending. In dozens of conversations with staffers and members of Congress, he’s found that there’s now less incentive for a politician to serve on an appropriations committee because there’s nothing to hand out. As a result, says Kelly, the committees attract more partisans and fewer pragmatists–to its detriment.

The bottom line: Politicians and the public have long complained about earmarks, but there was less dysfunction in Washington when they were allowed.

No comments: