He Ain't Heavy, He's My Senator

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The popular polling firm Survey USA does monthly head-checks of opinion from all 50 states—approval of Pres. Bush, approval of the 50 governors, and approval of the 100 senators. One might think the lousy recent record of the world's finest deliberative body would send the senators' numbers plunging. Not so.

Take Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. You'd be forgiven for thinking he's a complete embarrassment, demanding useless pork projects for his state, throwing tantrums when he doesn't get it. But Stevens has been rewarded by his fellow Alaskans with massive popularity. His approval rating is 65%, making him the third most-liked Republican senator. The other king of pork, Robert Byrd, clocks in at 64% approval. Trent Lott, whose lust for government contracts in his post-Katrina state has earned the ire of the ineffective bloggers' group Porkbusters, has the same numbers. Both men are up for re-election this year, and neither is facing a serious challenge.

It's not a clear-cut pattern, but the senators who do the most looting of taxpayer funds, and the least principled policy-making, are getting the fattest thumbs-ups from the voters. The senators better-known for their causes than their earmarking—anti-UN crusader Norm Coleman (MN), anti-ANWR-drilling Maria Cantwell (WA), uterus-repossession advocate Rick Santorum—appear near the bottom of the hit list.

(Also interesting—the way Joe Lieberman's popularity has sunk in response to his whiny complaints about a liberal primary challenge.)

NEXT: The Stone Phillips Standard

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  1. We get the government we vote for.

  2. Damn that 17th amendment!


  3. Damn that 17th amendment!
    Comment by: Timothy at April 21, 2006 10:03 AM

    I still wonder whether the gluttony of pork is an uninteded consequence of the 17th or whether those who framed it knew it would come to this.

  4. Well, I’m sure the Kings of Pork are quite popular in their OWN states. Is that what the survey is, maybe? Popularity of YOUR governor?

  5. he’s a complete embarrassment, demanding useless pork projects for his state

    What incentive do Alaskan’s have to be “embarassed”? Their Senator brings home the bacon. Why wouldn’t he be popular there?

    This is textbook Public Choice theory.

    I still wonder whether the gluttony of pork is an uninteded consequence of the 17th or whether those who framed it knew it would come to this.

    Like all items on the Progressive agenda, they believed in its ability to do good, and thought little of the consequences.

  6. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: democracy just doesn’t work.

  7. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: democracy just doesn’t work.

    The problem is not Democracy, it is big government. Democracy is the only reasonable way to manage a government in a free society. The problem is simply a matter of restricting what government is authorized to do.

  8. democracy just doesn’t work

    Too true. That’s why the Founders created a government of limited and divided powers, to try to contain the damage done by 200 proof democracy. Most of the “progressive” reforms of the last hundred years or so have been to dismantle, circumvent, or just plain old ignore the ‘limited and divided’ powers part of the Constitution. To our loss.


  9. The problem is not Democracy, it is big government. Democracy is the only reasonable way to manage a government in a free society. The problem is simply a matter of restricting what government is authorized to do.
    Comment by: MP at April 21, 2006 10:33 AM

    Eh, democracy is overrated. You could do the same with a monarchy. The problem is simply a matter of restricting what the monarch is authorized to do.

  10. The senators better-known for their causes than their earmarking – anti-UN crusader Norm Coleman (MN), anti-ANWR-drilling Maria Cantwell (WA), uterus-repossession advocate Rick Santorum – appear near the bottom of the hit list.

    Uh.

    Yes, they are indeed at the bottom of the chart. But if you view it as a “hit list” aren’t they in fact close to the top? Most likely to be “eleminated?”

    Picky, picky, picky.

  11. Eh, democracy is overrated. You could do the same with a monarchy.

    Unless a monarch is directly accountable to the people (via voting), I don’t see how the concept of a monarchy is compatible with the idea of a free society.


  12. Unless a monarch is directly accountable to the people (via voting), I don’t see how the concept of a monarchy is compatible with the idea of a free society.
    Comment by: MP at April 21, 2006 10:39 AM

    Any form of government is incompatible with a free society. If you, like other libertoids believe in the need for a state run military and police force, a monarchy could provide it just as much as a democracy could.
    It is not the means of government that is the basis of libertarianism – it is the means of constraint of that government. So, as I said, you can get the same mileage from a monarchy as much as a democracy provided you find some way to limit their force. To date, we have not been very successful.
    In addition, in order to maximize liberty, in a monarchy, you only need 1 person – the monarch to be focused on promoting liberty. In a democracy, you need more than 50% of the population to be focused on it. Considering the threshold needed to achieve liberty maximization within a democracy, I’d say it is much easier to do so with a monarchy – or rather several restrained monarchies.

  13. RC Dean,
    Yes, back to those glory days before blacks or women could vote. How great it would have been if we could have avoided the “progress” from the founders original perfect vision.

    I will ask it again, why is “pork” such a big issue here? It is bad, yes, but it almost seems as if it is being equated with “big government”. Eliminate all pork, and you will have eliminated a trivial portion of the budget – a trivial part of the budget that would replaced by a more bureaucratic and better funding allocation process.

    If you want a solution to this problem perhaps we could look into campaign finance solutions – say public financing. Any takers?

  14. metalgrid,

    Who watches the Monarch?

    the monarch to be focused on promoting liberty

    Inherent in the concept of a Monarchy is the absolute authority of a Monarch. If you attempt to implement a Parliament to check the Monarch, you have just introduced Democracy into the equation.

    My point is that a pure Monarchy is inherently totalitarian and thus is abosolutely incompatible with the concept of a free society. Any diluted Monarchy has mixed in Democracy.

  15. Metalgrid: I’m actually pretty damn sure a lot of the problem with have with pork is a direct result of the 17th amendment. It made the Senate more like The House 2.0, which gives Senators exactly the same incentives as Representatives.

  16. In addition, in order to maximize liberty, in a monarchy, you only need 1 person – the monarch to be focused on promoting liberty. In a democracy, you need more than 50% of the population to be focused on it.

    In addition, in order to curtail liberty, in a monarchy, you only need 1 person – the monarch to be focused on curtailing liberty. In a democracy you need more than 50% of the population to be focused on it.

    Rule by a single person allows all sorts of opportunities for good or for ill. Rule by representatives with consent of the governed allows fewer opportunities, for good or for ill. But a look around today’s world shows that when power is concentrated the people holding it tend to take advantage of opportunities to abuse it rather than opportunities to use it wisely, whereas those who are held accountable tend to show at least a little more restraint. And it’s notable that when a thug manages to win power in an election, he usually does his utmost to make sure that the next election either doesn’t happen or else happens under dubious circumstances. If thuggish rulers fear genuine open elections then I figure that elections must have some real virtues.

    Yes, yes, there are exceptions both ways, but I’ll take my chances with a system that distributes power among 3 branches with many people in each branch, and holds them accountable to the governed via free electoral processes.

  17. If you want a solution to this problem perhaps we could look into campaign finance solutions – say public financing. Any takers?

    The solution is the Balanced Budget Veto.

  18. In addition, in order to maximize liberty, in a monarchy, you only need 1 person – the monarch to be focused on promoting liberty. In a democracy, you need more than 50% of the population to be focused on it.

    In addition, in order to curtail liberty, in a monarchy, you only need 1 person – the monarch to be focused on curtailing liberty. In a democracy you need more than 50% of the population to be focused on it.

    Rule by a single person allows all sorts of opportunities for good or for ill. Rule by representatives with consent of the governed allows fewer opportunities, for good or for ill. But a look around today’s world shows that when power is concentrated the people holding it tend to take advantage of opportunities to abuse it rather than opportunities to use it wisely, whereas those who are held accountable tend to show at least a little more restraint. And it’s notable that when a thug manages to win power in an election, he usually does his utmost to make sure that the next election either doesn’t happen or else happens under dubious circumstances. If thuggish rulers fear genuine open elections then I figure that elections must have some real virtues.

    Yes, yes, there are exceptions both ways, but I’ll take my chances with a system that distributes power among 3 branches with many people in each branch, and holds them accountable to the governed via free electoral processes.

  19. “ineffective bloggers group porkbusters”

    Ineffective because they’ve failed to eliminate pork? Ineffective because they have failed to get people to think about earmarks? I guess Reason online would similarly be ineffective blogging because the cause for free markets and free minds hardly seems to be advancing. Or is it that you guys at Reason just really hate Reynolds and take shots whenever possible?

  20. TheCoach,

    I don’t see how public financing of campaigns would provide Senators less incentive to spend Federal tax money in their states.

  21. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: democracy just doesn’t work.

    I always liked what Darius had to say on the subject:

    Again, in a democracy, it is impossible but that there will be malpractices: these malpractices, however, do not lead to enmities, but to close friendships, which are formed among those engaged in them, who must hold well together to carry on their villainies.

    2500 years later and we are still having this discussion.

    Also, please feed the squirels.

  22. Mike,
    Reynolds is a clown. The nicest thing you could do for him would be to ignore him, and let him recover his senses.

    Conceptually, though, it is a remarkably silly idea. After cheearleading for a 1 – 2 Trillion dollar ineffectual war, Reynolds thinks he can make it up by shaving $29 billion (that would simply be allocated in a different way) off the budget?

  23. “In addition, in order to curtail liberty, in a monarchy, you only need 1 person – the monarch to be focused on curtailing liberty. In a democracy you need more than 50% of the population to be focused on it.”

    Actually, no, evidence is pretty good that in a democracy you only need about 30% to be focused on it, or maybe as little as 10 to 15% if located in a handful of critical states/media markets. The remainder of the population only needs to be either indifferent or prioritize other issues higher.

  24. SR-

    Fair enough. I would still rather take my chances with distributed power rather than concentrated power.

  25. Good point Mitch!

    I was writing hastily and had in my mind competitiveness of incumbent seats.

    It is not inconceiveable that more competitve races would increase incentive for pork barrel spending. You may notice that I do not find this to be that big of a deal, but it is also conceiveable that more competitve races could lead to better institutional policies for allocating federal funds.

    Back to a high level discussion about the pros and cons of democracy vs. monarchy.

  26. theCoach,

    I’ve seen RC Dean make his anti-democracy argument before, and I think you misunderstood.

    The “expansion of democracy” he’s upset with isn’t the expansion of suffrage to women and non-whites. It’s the expansion of the portion of government decision making that is directly controlled by the voters – things like the direct election of Senators and the ballot initiative.

    Which is still wrong, but not egregiously so.

  27. Coach,

    I disagree. I was against the war myself, but I have no problem with someone who supported a 2 trillion dollar war on principle taking a principled stand against even a $100 piece of wasteful spending. To me scale doesn’t matter here.

  28. joe,
    I understood that. Mine was a general parody of the idea that everything was just perfect 100 years ago, and I think RC Dean’s phrasing left him pretty open to that charge.

  29. Legitimacy in government primarily arises from the premise that power somehow flows from people, with the alternatives being divinity or the biggest stick. Democracy is an essential ingredient of a durable government because the alternatives are theocracy and thugocracy.

    That said, I reject the notion that democracy is some sort of uber value. Some people really really believe that the legitimacy conferred onto a ruling structure through democracy is also conferred onto any other outcome of a vote. As a result, the argument is made that a vote cast rightly trumps a philosophical position in all cases.

    If there were broader recognition that democracy is a pooptacular answer to most every problem, and that its sole use is to allow people to buy into the existence of government, we’d all be better off.

  30. One of the few laudable things accomplished by the Progressives was women’s suffrage. But that wasn’t necessarily a “Progressives” accomplishment, since aggitation for women’s suffrage dates back to before the Civil War. And it was accomplished legitimately, by amending the Constitution. Most everything else I reject as being good for the country (and yes, that includes child labor laws).

  31. [Server ate this earlier]
    Fair enough Mike.

    However, no one is against wasteful spending. Ear marking is a terrible way to alocate funds, but we should not get confused that it is all wasteful – certainly some is, and Ted Stevens appears to be a poster boy for that. In a perfect allocation system, though, much of this spending would be allocated in different ways, but it would be based on merit.

  32. MP,
    …and thankfully, we live in a democracy where you are outnumbered by about 10,000 to 1.

  33. Let’s see, the two most popular forms of organizing government are democracy, where I can be indirectly governed by a ignorant mob of voters intent on robbing and regulating me to death, or monarchy-dictarship, where I have to gamble on not getting stuck with an authoritarian type bent on mass murder. And people think I’m crazy for advocating anarchy. 🙂

  34. “…and thankfully, we live in a democracy where you are outnumbered by about 10,000 to 1.”

    Sorry, MP, the mob has spoken! (taken from the Simpson’s Monorail episode)


  35. In addition, in order to curtail liberty, in a monarchy, you only need 1 person – the monarch to be focused on curtailing liberty. In a democracy you need more than 50% of the population to be focused on it.
    Comment by: thoreau at April 21, 2006 11:09 AM

    And to end a monarchy, you only need to do away with that 1 person – how do you end a democracy gone wrong?

    Timothy, I agree. It’s probably the only thing I agreed with Zell Miller on – if you’ve read his rant against the 17th, it’s rather enlightening.

    Jason Ligon, pooptacular pretty much covers it.

  36. I’ll start with the notion that anything that actually needs public dollars gets them. The notion that pork is bad because it diverts funds from where the money ‘should’ go seems not accurate to me on those grounds. First, everything that we have broad consensus on gets funded, then we allocate pork. I’d imagine the brain of a senator goes something like this:

    1) Okay, if I vote against this spending, can it be used to move a big coalition against me? Lessee, I have to care about the troops, so that gets the green light. I have to care about the children and for god’s sake the elderly. Businesses will need a little something.

    2) Whew! Saying yes to all that spending is a lot of work. Now, that is all taken care of. How can I make a big splash on the local front? I need … a bridge …

  37. Despite my 10000:1 comment I agree with Jason Ligon above.

    Arguing about child labor laws seems troublesome. My guess is that one side would argue in theory and that I would be arguing empirically – show me the benefits of no child labor laws.

  38. I would still rather take my chances with distributed power rather than concentrated power.

    Agreed. But democracy isn’t necessarily the same thing as distributed power. What’s the check on the 51% majority? And particularly in a system like ours, where 2 parties essentially have a monopoly on the available candidates (and for reasons I won’t go into here, I think a 2 party system is the inevitable result of our electoral processes), is our democracy necessarily a representative democracy?

    Recommended reading

  39. Short of term limits, I would like to see some serious procedural changes. No more dead-of-night “compromises” and “addenda.” No more monstrous Omnibus Spending Bills. Milton Friedman once suggested a limit on the physical size of any Bill; the length of the original Constitution, as I recall. Bring everything out for a roll-call vote.

    And- make it an impeachable, if not criminal offense, for any Senator or Congressman to cast a vote on any Bill without a clear knowledge and understanding of its contents.

  40. and for reasons I won’t go into here, I think a 2 party system is the inevitable result of our electoral processes

    Are you talking about Duverger’s Law (which should be more accurately named Duverger’s Observation, but whatever)? I’m a big fan of alternatives to plurality voting. The most promising is probably Approval Voting for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the minimal cost associated with the change.

  41. Get a grip, Coach. I got no problem with universal suffrage, which is completely consistent with limited and divided government.

    And, joe, practically none of our government is directly controlled by voters (thank God). We are still a republic, and not a democracy, in that sense (Allah be praised). I’m pretty agnostic about ballot initiatives, and cannot recall ever having opined on them in these parts.

    My problem is with the dismantling of the various mechanisms by which the Founders dispersed and divided state power, in the pursuit of the total state.

    Progressives, in my experience, got no problem with the total state, as long as they are in charge, and have devoted much energy to creating Leviathan.

  42. Are you talking about Duverger’s Law (which should be more accurately named Duverger’s Observation, but whatever)?

    I’ll have to google that one, because I’m not familiar with it. Mostly, I’m basing my views on my anecdotal observation that people are more likely to vote against the candidate they hate than for the candidate they like. If you really dreaded George Bush getting re-elected, voting for John Kerry would be more likely to produce a favorable outcome for you than voting for a third party, even if you preferred the third party candidate’s views. If we were using some alternative method such as Condorcet or instant run-off, people would be more inclined to vote their views, if they could do so without the potential penalty of giving an advantage to a candidate they hated. As things stand, voters have an incentive to rally around a less than desirable candidate, in fear of an even worse alternative.

  43. And people think I’m crazy for advocating anarchy.

    Why yes, matt, yes we do.

  44. Pig Mannix-

    I see why people vote for lesser evils in close races. What I’ve never understood is why they’d rather vote for a candidate who is losing with 40% instead of a candidate who is losing with 1%.

    Condorcet and Instant Runoff have their merits, but Approval Voting is also a pretty decent system that allows greater competition, and you can implement it without buying new machines.

  45. Actually proking would probably be worse if the senators were picked by the state legislature as a state legislature wanting to spend and not tax in order to be popular would make sure that senators went as much home as possible.

  46. “You want to know about voting. I’m here to tell you about voting. Imagine you’re locked in a huge underground nightclub filled with sinners, whores, freaks and unnamable things that rape pit bulls for fun. And you ain’t allowed out until you all vote on what you’re going to do tonight. YOU like to put your feet up and watch ‘Republican Party Reservation.’ THEY like to have sex with normal people using knives, guns, and brand-new sexual organs that you did not know exist. So you vote for television, and everyone else, as far as your eye can see, votes to fuck you with switchblades. That’s voting. You’re welcome.”

    – Spider Jerusalem

    on a more serious note, if senators were elected by state legislators as in pre-17th days, how exactly would that reduce the incentive for pork? Instead of bringing it home for the voters they would be bringing it home for the unprincipled fucks who tend to run state legislatures.

  47. ok, I wanted to read all your thoughts before posting, but my eyes glazed over when you started debating the relative merits of dictatorship and democracy.

    There is no such thing as legitimate government, but their are degrees of legitimacy.

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