Gary M. Galles - Contributor
Galles is a professor of econmics at Pepperdine University.
Politics Just Plain Indefensible
No proof for goofy argument that funding pet projects
helps greater good...
[Gary M. Galles] 1/26/04
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.
2004 Gary M. Galles