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Gary M. Galles - Contributor

Mr. Galles is a professor of econmics at Pepperdine University.

Pork Politics Just Plain Indefensible
No proof for goofy argument that funding pet projects helps greater good...

[Gary M. Galles] 1/26/04

Last Tuesday, the Senate's first order of business was to try to pass a cloture vote on the fiscal 2004 budget, four months late and less than two weeks before President Bush submits his fiscal 2005 request. The vote failed due to some last-minute haggling, but the bill's passage in coming days is seen as inevitable.

A key reason it will pass is its staggering amount of pork. The $820 billion omnibus spending bill, with $328 billion of discretionary spending, is larded with record amounts, with its over 7,000 earmarks, or "member projects," setting a record for a single bill, and also pushing the annual total to over 10,000 for the first time ever.

In other words, politicians and their favored constituents, while swearing allegiance to fiscal responsibility, have had both hands in the pork barrel again. The Congressional Record listed 111 earmarks for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, 112 "job access and reverse commute grants" and 902 "economic development initiatives," plus a wide assortment of others.

The billions of dollars of political palm-greasers in the omnibus spending bill, and the thousands of similar items that emerge from inside the beltway each year, brings up an important question: Is all this pork an essential lubricant necessary to pass well-understood, -designed and -implemented policies that advance Americans' general welfare, or is it in fact the essential ingredient in legislation, adding little or nothing to the general good?

Professional politicians and those they favor push the essential lubricant view, saying that any such obviously unjustified spending (which never includes theirs) is just the necessary price to accomplish some greater good. But with legislators unable to even pass required bills and legislation going little beyond robbing Peter to pay Paul, they are far from convincing.

Among the multitudes of these pot-bellied pet projects, none solves a serious failure of the market or a pressing need. But that is hardly surprising. If a project was so urgent to beneficiaries, they would have been willing to fund it privately or through their state or local government rather than pushing it to the federal level to force others to pay most of the tab.

Those with the most power over spending get the most pork and the biggest contributions from those whose interests are advanced. However, unlike the essential lubricant view, which would require that those leaders spearhead the efforts to craft beneficial legislation, it implies that those influential members are, in fact, the chief extortionists.

Those we elect defend earmarks as sensibly giving them a direct say in funding their communities. But that is really an argument that the federal government should not be involved at all. If locals really know better what should be done, they should both decide and fund such projects. If the beneficiaries are unwilling to pay out of their own pockets, then the money would be better left in their pockets, without an expensive detour inside the beltway. All that trip adds is the fiction that when some fraction of the money comes back as projects locals wouldn't be willing to pay for, they somehow benefit as a result.

Politicians face conflicting allegiances between their limited constitutionally defined duties and bringing home the bacon. But it is worth remembering that every bit of pork was extorted from others by politicians as the price of their assent, in exchange for others' reciprocal extortion of their constituents, and that not one cent of the funding came from anyone except taxpayers. Once that is recognized, it is clear that there is far more lubricant than necessary for the useful work done.

copyright 2004 Gary M. Galles




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