Political Hay

It’s Not Just Pork

"Earmarks" are but a symptom of something a lot more corrupting.

By 1.24.06

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The fallout from the Jack Abramoff scandal, and the resultant competition for new Republican leadership in the House, has produced a growing refrain calling for an end to federal budget "earmarks." But pork proliferation is only part of the story behind the corruption problems created by oversized government.

As Patrick Chisholm wrote this week in the Christian Science Monitor, the complicity of alleged conservatives (i.e. Republicans) in the practice of expanding government represents a "triumph of the redistributionist left."

"'Republican' is no longer synonymous with spending restraint, free markets, and other ideals of the political right," Chisholm wrote. "While the left did not get its way on tax cuts, this may only be a temporary defeat: Freewheeling spending has made future tax cuts politically a lot harder."

That may be changing. Outrage was kindled last year when Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere" was pledged $223 million in the federal transportation bill. Ever since public scrutiny, coupled with the Abramoff revelations, has increasingly shamed lawmakers into repentance over bringing outrageous pork barrel projects to their districts.

Further, this week Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund and syndicated journalist Robert Novak examined how big government has encouraged the growth of earmarks, which in turn have stimulated the corruption. Novak reported Arizona Sen. John McCain's efforts to find common ground between the political parties in order to wipe out pork.

"A reform of a system that has grown ever more rotten must have two salient characteristics, in McCain's view," Novak wrote. "It must be bipartisan, and it must eviscerate, if not eliminate, earmarks."

And Fund focused on the trend by state and local governments to hire lobbyists in order to obtain federal funds for those special projects.

"The number of companies hired to pursue earmarks has doubled since 2000, many of them retained by universities or cities to pursue federal dollars," Fund reported. "Now the feeding frenzy has escalated to the point that some lobbyists...are approaching local officials and suggesting they have the juice to get them an earmark, providing the lobbyist gets paid a hefty fee."

However, a clamor against special appropriations -- pushed in Congress by House Majority Leader candidates John Shadegg of Arizona and John Boehner of Ohio -- is growing, and certainly promising. But while the focus is on pork, attention should also be paid to two other insidious products of meddlesome government: economic development incentives and eminent domain.

AS MUCH AS TAXPAYERS gag on pork, corporate welfare (we call it "corporate socialism" here at the John Locke Foundation) ought to make them equally sick. Consider this week's announcement by Ford Motor Company that they plan to shutter up to 14 assembly plants, and lay off as many as 30,000 employees. Despite the domestic automaker's ongoing woes and fight for survival, governors from affected states traveled in recent weeks to Dearborn, Michigan, to beg Ford to spare their states from plant closings. Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt offered a package of incentives (he wouldn't specify how much publicly) earlier this month to try to convince Ford not to close its Hazelwood, Missouri plant. This after both state and local officials four years ago granted the company $17 million in tax breaks to keep the same factory open. Is there any amount of taxpayer money that is too much to pour down a rathole?

And how about this, from the (some say) "conservative" Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota:

"We basically told Ford this: We will meet or exceed any other state's offer," Pawlenty explained to WCCO-TV in Minneapolis. "We can do it the traditional way and just subsidize the current operation if it's important to you, Ford.

"Or, if you'd like to build a better, brighter future that's growth-oriented, in alternative fuels and renewable energy, we'd be willing to invest significantly in that too."

"Invest" is the favorite buzzword of politicians -- both Democrat and Republican -- who like to use other people's money to take chances in risky businesses. The results are often as scandalous as anything Abramoff has perpetrated.

As is the Supreme Court-endorsed practice of employing eminent domain to give private property to developers, also in the name of economic development. You should already be familiar with the Kelo v. New London decision in Connecticut, which took away homeowners' land and gave it to a developer to build more tax revenue-generating commercial property. Similar situations exist in localities all over the country, like Riviera Beach, Florida, where officials want to displace a largely minority ("blighted") community on the waterfront in favor of a marina and more expensive houses.

What it represents is a pervasive attitude throughout government, and extending through both political parties, that there are no rights of the people other than those granted by those in political power. Local and state government, with eminent domain and economic incentives, merely represent the farm system that leads to the big-time pork playground.

"Industries that want favors or protection from government...hire the powerful to manipulate the levers of power," Fund wrote. "Local governments (are) similarly motivated to look for free federal money. Abuse and corruption... inevitably follow."

The New York Times reported Tuesday that some states are moving faster on lobbying reform than the federal government.

That's an O.K. start, but the pervasive corruption inspired by political patronage and big government, at all levels, is epidemic. Politicians need an attitude overhaul, not just changes in these figureheads near the top.

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About the Author

Paul Chesser publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, a news aggregator for North Carolina, and is a contributor of articles, research and investigative reports for both national and state-level free-market think tanks.