The Spectacle Blog

Re: Why Pork Ain’t Kosher

By on 4.25.08 | 10:59AM

The column was obviously tongue-in-cheek (or maybe it's not so obvious -- Alanis Morrisette has killed irony, damn her). I don't seriously expect members of Congress to give up on 98 percent of federal spending in exchange for more Bridges to Nowhere. But I am serious that the disproportionate focus on earmark reform is a waste of time and something that won't lead to smaller government.

The strongest argument against earmarks is the one John makes: they contribute to the "culture of spending" by greasing the skids for the passage of legislation that really bloats the federal budget. (Though, pace John, there actually are some examples of it being used by the limited-government side -- in today's political climate, pork is essential to passing free-trade agreements. CAFTA almost certainly wouldn't have passed without it.) But the very fact that this kind of logrolling is central to the way our legislative process works is why it is naive to pretend members of Congress won't find a way to enage in it, even if earmarks are banned.

Earmarks determine who disburses the spending -- Congress -- not the level of spending. So getting rid of earmarks in and of themselves won't directly cut any spending. It is possible to spend wastefully without earmarks (most of the extraneous spending in last year's peanuts for the troops bill wasn't earmarked). And, frankly, big government programs like the prescription drug benefit and SCHIP have their own constituencies and appeal. Without a serious conservative attack on the premises behind these bills, even an earmark moratorium won't hold them at bay for long. Though some pork busters, like Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint, take on entitlements and earmarks at the same time.

I won't speak for Richard, but I would have no problem with the anti-pork crusade if pork was being used as a metaphor for how expensive and out of control the federal government has gotten in general. But for the non-Coburns, earmarks can be a cheap and easy cop-out to avoid tackling the real issues. Republican efforts to rein in federal spending by focusing on "waste, fraud, and abuse" have failed for almost thirty years, because the incentives for waste are always there and the real money isn't in pork. I don't see much evidence that the current campaign is going to end any differently.

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