November 22, 2007

Why Pork Is DC's Favorite White Meat

When we talk about white meat on Thanksgiving, most picture a finely roasted turkey, carved thin, with delicious gravy and trimmings. In the context of federal government, however, the white meat refers to pork, which is never cut thin but dropped thickly onto the backs of taxpayers. Why white meat? As our friend Jazz Shaw reminds us, it's both red and blue and the favorite meal of Congressmen of both parties. Today's Washington Post demonstrates that Republicans still have not quite learned their lesson from 2006:

House Republican Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) roundly assailed the "Democrats' Labor-H Spending Nightmare" in a news release that preceded Bush's veto of the labor, health and human services and education spending bill last week. Blunt decried the "spending spree" hidden in the transportation, housing and urban development bill. House Republican Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam (R-Fla.) dismissed the now-vetoed labor, health and education bill as a "billion-dollar earmark bonanza."

But while Blunt and Putnam fired away, they may have quietly ached for the sorry fate of those two bills. The dear, departed "Labor-H" nightmare included more than $1.4 million in projects secured by Blunt, including $400,000 for the purchase of equipment by Joplin, Mo.'s Freeman Health System, $100,000 for the Joplin School District and another $100,000 for a college preparatory pilot program at Missouri State University.

Putnam's central Florida district was due for $1.25 million in federal largess, including advanced manufacturing training programs for Polk Community College in Winter Haven and funding for Florida Southern College in Lakeland to "digitize holdings and create an online exhibit."

I've interviewed both Blunt and Putnam, and both do good work. However, they seem to miss the point entirely on pork, and while they do, Republican efforts to limit government will come to naught.

Here's why. The porksters have created an incentive system that rewards government expansion. They have created a market where fiscal responsibility is discounted and a system of spoils provides more rewards for bad behavior. By earmarking funds for use in their own districts, legislators have created a system not unlike single-payor health care -- where the benefits that reach the consumer fall far short of the cost, but the cost remains so hidden (or perhaps so overwhelming) that the consumer doesn't figure it into the analysis.

Imagine a system where earmarks ceased to exist. What happens? The federal agencies would then spend the money much differently, forcing competitive bidding where earmarks do not. The money would not end up in Johnstown, PA, or most of the rest of the Congressional districts. The allocation would shift dramatically, and a lot more districts would lose rather than win in the exchange.

The reason big government continues to exist and expand is because we created incentives for it in almost every Congressional district in America.. Pork is an addiction that goes far beyond the politicians that act as its pushers. If those incentives ceased to exist outside of the Beltway and its environs, how long do you suppose the other districts would tolerate this level of federal spending and control?

In the absence of the incentives, voters would start looking realistically at how much money they send to the federal government, and the kind of control it exerts over their lives. They would have a real picture of it, for the first time in decades. Taxpayers would demand reductions in federal spending, starting with those programs that have the least benefit to the nation.

If you want small government, the only way to get there is to show people an honest cost-benefit analysis of Washington's spending. Republicans who contribute to or enable pork-barrel politics delay this accountability, and in doing so perpetuate the big-government leviathan they supposedly oppose. Until the spoils system is eliminated, the demand for big government will always remain strong enough to keep DC expanding its spending and its authority.

Republicans who want small government don't pork. It's really that simple, and Republican leadership had better learn the lesson quickly. Just as with any other market, the only way to end unwanted behavior is to remove the incentives.


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