Why Pork Matters

I get a lot of e-mail every day, and I try to read it all even though I can’t possibly respond to each message. Most of the messages consist of promotional e-mails, some are spam, and others are personal messages from friends, but occasionally I get earnest questions about topics under discussion that require more than a one-on-one reply. CapQ reader Edward S sent me a question on pork, and why we should consider it such a problem. In part, here is Edward’s question:

I am a Republican and regular reader of conservative blogs, and I see that the earmarks issue is getting long-term big play as an issue that conservative elected officials ought to do something about. But could you please clarify what you see as the problem: is it that appropriations would be LOWER if there were no earmarks — meaning that the the actual dollar numbers appropriated would be LESS money spent out of the Treasury — or is it that the same money would be spent, but on services and goods chosen by executive branch officials rather than chosen by the legislators?
For example, in your post today about a school contract, the problem you point to is that the school officials were going to spend the same money, but wanted a different contractor. That’s not the same thing as if the money wasn’t going to be spent at all.
If what you’re complaining about is legislators making the decision on who actually gets the contract and the money, I have to say I’m not as upset as I am in a situation where the money just wouldn’t be spent at all. In our system of government, isn’t it in principle OK for the legislators to decide who gets the contract? It means that we the people get to vote directly on whether to re-elect people based on how good they are at choosing contractors.

It’s a great question. Why wouldn’t we want legislators making these decisions, when they have more direct accountability to the voters? After all, the deeper it gets into the bureaucracy, the less control the people have over the money.
All of that would be true if it weren’t for the way in which earmarks get used. Too often, Representatives and Senators aren’t directing money for the purpose of efficiency or to bypass a bloated bureaucratic process. They’re earmarking to earn credits with political supporters, as the Mary Landrieu case makes quite plain, and as the various Jack Abramoff scandals showed earlier. Either they’re currying favor with state and local officials back home to solidify their own power base, or they’re cutting sweetheart deals with contributors to their campaigns. In almost all cases, the earmarks have a lot more to do with their own interests than those of the people.
It also reduces the efficiencies of competitive bidding. Almost all earmarks go to some specific entity, which avoids the necessity of competing for a contract or grant. That raises prices and lowers quality no matter how well-intentioned it might be. The procurement bureaucracies have mandates to force competitive bidding that Capitol Hill politicians can bypass through earmarking. The result? Poorer service, higher-priced products, and more waste and mismanagement from the government.
The worst part of earmarks is that they entrench power in Washington. People like Jack Murtha, Ted Stevens, Robert Byrd, and others gain lifetime sinecures by wielding pork to extort votes and curry favor. Not only does this pervert the legislative process, but it also makes it more difficult to unseat incumbents, some of whom really need replacing. Instead of citizen legislators, it leads to first a professional class of politicians and then an elite whose power cannot be challenged. The only people who have any reasonable chance of success are those who can outspend the incumbents, and that usually means people who can write their own checks.
Pork perverts self-government. It puts all of the incentives in the wrong places and forces action in the wrong direction. Eliminating the pork in this year’s bills might not save a dime as the agencies will simply receive the money without prior forced allocation. However, by removing the struts of power on which pork rests, we can change the incentives so that forking over huge sums of money to overpowerful bureaucracies becomes a political liability instead of an asset. That’s when we will see politicians focused on eliminating waste, reducing budgets, and shrinking the reach of the federal government.
Pork matters. Anyone interested in clean government regardless of policy outlook can find common ground for agreement on this point. Small-government advocates should especially see this as the entree to fighting federal expansionism.
UPDATE: Mark Tapscott kindly links back to this post.