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The value of pork

Scrutiny of earmarks forces us to think more about spending priorities and what we want from our leaders.

September 23, 2007

If you follow politics, you may have seen an anonymous quotation explaining that a democracy "can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury." But as scrutiny of congressional pork in the form of legislative earmarking becomes more intense, it's almost possible to believe that open government is robust enough to survive the eternal temptation of a free lunch.

Earmarks -- the provisions in congressional legislation that direct specific funds or tax breaks to specific projects -- have been getting a lot of attention lately, most of it negative. This month, President Bush signed into law the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, giving it a lukewarm endorsement for making "some progress" toward earmark reform. The Department of Transportation's inspector general recently issued a report detailing the constraints that excessive earmarking has put on infrastructure spending throughout the country. And reform-minded House Republicans have begun a push to include authorization bills under new transparency requirements. Currently only earmarks in appropriations bills are subject to strict disclosure rules.

Why all this fuss over a legislative habit that amounts to $15 billion to $30 billion a year -- at most 1% of the $3-trillion annual federal expenditure? In some respects, earmarks are the domestic equivalent of federal spending on foreign aid, which amounts to very little in the total budget but assumes epic proportions in the public imagination. Nor, as is popularly supposed, do earmarks increase federal spending, at least not directly. By drawing off funding from more important projects, pork may lead to more compensatory spending, but that's another story.

It's more accurate to say that earmarks, and the culture of secrecy around them, act as a measure of corruption (as senators and representatives lard favors on political allies) and complicate what should be straightforward funding decisions (as lawmakers' pet projects reroute money and hamstring the bureaucracies tasked with managing large budgets). But their real value may be metaphysical: Getting exercised about pork forces us to think more seriously about governance, spending priorities and what we actually want from our leaders.

"The essence of successful ethics reform," Bush said in signing the legislation, "is not laws and restrictions but full disclosure." Worthy proposals to reduce pork-barrel spending include a limited presidential line-item veto and regulation on when earmarks can be inserted into legislation -- so that, for example, lawmakers can't insert last-minute goodies just before floor votes or during reconciliation of Senate and House bills. But these are stop-us-before-we-legislate-again ideas, an admission that elected officials need laws to prevent them from doing things that, in many cases, their constituents want them to do.

The real solution is for voters to be better informed about how their representatives are carving up the pork. The emphasis on earmark disclosure over the last year has helped educate the average citizen about how spending decisions are made, and about the direct and indirect costs of those decisions. The Department of Transportation report is a good example. Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III discovered that $8.5 billion, or 13.5%, of the DOT's $63-billion budget for 2006 was diverted to lawmakers' pet projects. The results were not trivial: Considering that outgoing Federal Aviation Administration chief Marion Blakey recently warned airlines to cut back flight schedules to reduce air traffic congestion, it's disturbing that earmarks for lower-priority items forced the FAA to put off higher-priority air traffic control projects.

Then again, among the pork items in the 2008 DOT budget, we find $70 million set aside for Gold Line expansion. If you believe extending the Gold Line is a good thing, you must also entertain the idea that a politician in California, not a technocrat in Washington, should make that decision. Every elected official must weigh the interests of the country against the interests of his or her district. Between those two concerns, lawmakers have always found opportunities for self-dealing, but it's up to voters to consider what we gain from pork, and what the nation loses in delivering it for us.

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