The crusade against pork-barrel spending has come a long way since the Bridge to Nowhere. Now a moratorium on earmarks -- congressional funds dispensed for specific projects -- has become a top priority of conservatives inside and outside of Congress.
John McCain in particular has built his reputation for fiscal conservatism on cutting earmarks. If elected, he promises to end pork in our time. Even the Democrats are getting into the act, lamenting that all the money spent on bear DNA mapping could have been used to expand public assistance to the poor.
When both parties are engaged in a massive spending bidding war -- Bill Clinton's reports of the death of big government were greatly exaggerated -- it's tempting to cheer on even the most modest budget cuts. But in setting their sights on pork, those dedicated to a smaller, more efficient government are aiming at the wrong target.
To put things in perspective, the combined cost of every single earmark identified in Citizens Against Government Waste's 2008 Pig Book was $17.2 billion. That's real money, but it is also less than 1 percent of a $2.77 trillion budget.
Worse, eliminating all these earmarks wouldn't have necessarily cut any spending. The money would just be handed out by someone other than Congress. In other words, they'll still have your tax dollars but your congressman won't be able to get any of it back.
IF CONSERVATIVES ARE are serious about cutting spending and members of Congress are equally committed to bringing home the bacon, consider this modest proposal: Give them their earmarks in exchange for slashing everything else.
Members of Congress would get to fund their lobster institute or favorite salmon fishery. Conservatives could focus on the other 99 percent of spending, where the real savings can be found. Didn't Barry Goldwater tell us to go hunting where the ducks are?
Sure, it would be better if taxpayers in Anchorage paid for their own bridges rather than foisting the bill on some unsuspecting family in Peoria or another congressional district with less seasoned representation. But politics is the art of the possible. No matter where a bridge goes, it doesn't cost anywhere nearly as much as an entitlement program.
The earmark benefiting the First Tee program, which seeks to "promote character development and life-enhancing values through the game of golf," is probably the most benign form of social engineering coming out of Washington.
Entitlements saddle our descendants with costs they never chose to take on and "benefits" they may not really want -- and, in the case of Social Security, may never even get. Pork, however, has none of these drawbacks. A teapot museum is something concrete, constructed in the here and now. Its costs probably won't mushroom beyond original projections, as have Medicare's.
Other pork projects provide tangible benefits without distorting free markets or creating perverse economic incentives. Think of the Montana Sheep Institute, for example -- a steal at just $148,950. Government-funded bicycle trails undoubtedly make life better for families and communities, as well as other living things, and at just a fraction of the $92 billion we spend on corporate welfare.
Every abuse of pork-barrel spending is out in the open while other programs seem to have invisible price tags. Hillary Clinton's Woodstock museum or the Larry Craig Memorial Rest Stop can easily be torn down. Entitlements, like diamonds, are forever.
FISCAL CONSERVATIVES could spend their time going after Congressman Walter Jones for the $147,000 he requested to build the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, North Carolina. Or they could concentrate on pricier boondoggles like the prescription drug benefit, which added $12 trillion to Medicare's unfunded liabilities -- and which Jones voted against. (Though Jones's critics may be less concerned about earmarks than with some other spending he'd like to cut.)
A few objections to a government of pork are easy to anticipate. Doesn't Washington, D.C. have better things to do than conduct olive fruit fly research in France or build the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service?
The equally obvious answer: Probably not. We can fund a $5 trillion war on poverty, which poverty seems to have won, and then export the Great Society to the Middle East. Or we can spend $196,000 to renovate a historic Las Vegas post office, in a red state where it might do some good.
The $460,752 earmarked last year for hops research could produce better beer, helping people to forget about all the other spending that would be cut in an earmarks-for-entitlements trade. It's true that this expenditure isn't directly authorized by the Constitution, but it's probably covered under the Declaration of Independence's provision regarding the pursuit of happiness. Can you think of any non-pork social program that offers such a great return on the taxpayer's investment?
If pork is really the main desire of congressmen and their constituents, let's give them what they want -- and very little else.