De Omnibus Disputandum

Who was the last person to know all the ingredients in the pork?


"I have no earthly idea how it got in there" Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) explained on Face the Nation, "but, obviously, somebody is going to know, and accountability will be carried out."

He was referring to a provision lurking on page 1,112 of the 3,200 page, $388 billion omnibus appropriations bill passed this weekend, which would have empowered appropriations committee chairmen or their "agents" to examine Americans' tax returns. The slapstick attempts to explain the errant rule, however, proved so farcical that it was hard to work up too much Orwellian terror. Frist pointed a finger at Rep. James Istook (R-Okla.), who protested: "I didn't write it; I didn't approve it; I wasn't even consulted… On occasions, appropriations staff will take the initiative to insert language they believe will be non-controversial… [It] was drafted by the IRS, so our staff presumed that it was OK." The IRS commissioner joins a unanimous chorus of Democratic and Republican legislators in supporting the nixing of the provision, and it remains somewhat opaque even days later exactly where it came from and how it came to be passed by the House.

As human knowledge has expanded, various candidates have been offered for the title of "last man to know everything," among them Erasmus, John Stuart Mill, and (far more dubiously) Thorstein Veblen. We now appear to be approaching a moment when it will be appropriate to speculate on the identity of the last person to know the contents of an annual omnibus appropriation. It will doubtless have to be someone who's been around for a while; it was back in 1988 that Ronald Reagan complained in his state of the union address of that year's turgid beast: "It took 300 people at my office of Management and Budget just to read the bill so the government wouldn't shut down. Congress shouldn't send another one of these." The complaint may have had a disingenuous ring to it—Reagan had made good use of "one of these" in his first term to enact his tax cuts—but it's hard not to agree that something's seriously amiss when legislators don't even know how they're voting to waste your money.

We've defined congressional deviance down sufficiently that the annual list of outrageous pork spending has attained the status of a kind of civic bloopers reel, a list of endearing foibles—that wacky Congress! And maybe that's the sane attitude to take: Conservatives and libertarians obsess over domestic discretionary spending, but what's ultimately more striking than how wasteful it's become is how little it matters. Even if some sharp and conscientious Hill staffer were to notice that Article I, Section 8 lacks a provision granting Congress the power to Promote by divers means the Appreciation of Mariachi music among the People ($25,000), were, indeed, to run down the list for the whole $15.8 billion in porkalicious earmarks, we could only hope to see about 4 percent of the omnibus bill excised. Demographic pressure on entitlements is driving deficits over the long term, not ludicrous giveaways to the B.B. King Museum, or even "discretionary" spending (it's all really discretionary, but legislators prefer to pretend their hands are tied) as a whole.

This appropriations bill is actually a relatively lean one, a fact that seems in equal part heartening and, when one considers how low a bar that assessment supposes, depressing. After adjusting for inflation, it represents a decline over the previous year's level, and someone was paying enough attention to remove a provision that would have hobbled competitive sourcing by government agencies. Still, since the Heritage Foundation has compiled a handy list of some representative inane spending in the bill, you may want to take a moment to scan the projects and amounts. Then contemplate that your own representatives, whether they voted for or against the omnibus bill, almost certainly did not even do that much.

To some extent, the problem is a pure function of the state's size. The larger a government becomes, the more it presumes to dabble in economic minutiae, as F.A. Hayek famously argued, the more policy will come to steered by an unaccountable few, as the inherent complexity of the subjects of legislation immunize them from public scrutiny or debate. The insight was scarcely original to Hayek; German sociologist Robert Michels had hit on it as early as 1911 in his Political Parties, where he dubbed it "the iron law of oligarchy." Now—especially as legislators more jealously guard their pork-dispensing prerogatives, rather than letting grant disbursing agencies fill in the details down the line—the effect of the "iron law" is so amplified that even the oligarchs (and the oligarchs among the oligarchs on the conference committees) aren't sure what's going on. One staffer plugs in some language downloaded from the Internet at the last minute, while another makes some handwritten adjustments to this or that dollar amount. Law is made on a darkling plain, where ignorant armies collude by night.

Even under a government as bloated as ours, it needn't be quite this bad. The committee process has been deliberately engineered to maximize speed, secrecy, and confusion.

One measure that could help would be a kind of legislative cooling-off period, some minimum period of time (a week?) that a bill may be debated, or at least read, between the time it leaves committee in final form and the time it can be put to a vote. These days, we wouldn't even need Reagan's legion of 300 at OMB. The same distributed, pajama-clad legions who pounced with such alacrity upon the suspicious kerning of Dan Rather's bogus memos could locate wasteful (or, as in this case, privacy-invading) provisions—and here's the novel part—:before they were locked into law. It's a safety measure so simple, obvious, and likely to be effective that there's no need to worry about its ever being implemented.