Porkbusters, Bust Thyselves?

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Ramesh Ponnuru's Thor-vs.-Loki battle with Sen. Tom Coburn over at National Review is necessary reading. Ponnuru's point —rarely made in NR, reason, or any other publications that care about small government—is that the "porkbusters" crusaders who ally and identify with Coburn (and vice versa) are misguided, wasting their time and effort attackin an infintesimal amount of federal spending. The crucial bit:

It could, perhaps, be argued that by highlighting silly projects that congressmen have promoted for base reasons, the porkbusters are delegitimizing federal spending in general and thus making it easier to shrink the government. But that strategy would be dishonest. And it would probably not work: Three decades of inveighing against "waste, fraud, and abuse" in federal spending, and pretending that eliminating those evils would lighten our tax burden, have not brought federal spending down.

The campaign against earmarks could even have the perverse effect of making other federal spending seem benign. If conservative porkbusters persuade taxpayers that the federal government could afford to provide free health care for all if only it stopped wasting money, they will have done themselves no favors.

Coburn rejects that, but Ponnuru's theory passes the man-on-the-street test. Stories about the Social Security shortfall or the coming Medicare apocalypse are complicated; stories about Senator Stevens funding a bridge that 50 people will use or Congressman Marshall scoring millions of dollars in peanut funding are simple, they get e-mailed around, they stick in the memory. I'd be amazed if the average person knew that earmarks amounted to only 1.1 percent of the federal budget.

Has that contributed to a rachet effect where Americans accept more and more nondiscretionary spending? If it did, it was a minor factor: Expanded entitlement spending (like "free health care for all") is popular right now. Its popularity has been growing for years, ever since the last politically dicey entitlement (welfare) was reformed. That isn't happening because voters think we can pay for new programs if we cut back in earmarks. It's happening because an aging population is shaking in its khakis about risk and it wants the government to fix that.

And, importantly, that hasn't happened with impressions of defense spending. Over the last year and a half, as Coburn and the porkbusters have earned their biggest headlines, the number of voters willing to cut defense spending (a much bigger chunk of the budget than earmarks) has spiked up to 43 percent, a 15-year high. Ponnuru's concerns are spot on, but there doesn't seem to be a relationship between how much publicity Coburn et al get for pork and voters' opinions of the other 99 percent of government spending.


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  1. Yes, getting rid of earmarks and bridges to nowhere will not significantly shrink the federal government. But, it still is billions in wasted money. I don’t see how killing that off is not an unadulterated good.

    As far as the other federal programs, doing something about earmarks and pork would go a long ways towards making them better. The defense budget for example is never what DOD asked for and is filled with crap that DOD doesn’t want and doesn’t need but benefits this or that district at the expense of more needed equipment. I have no doubt that the budgets of every other federal agency is no different. If you could do something to kill off the pork culture, you would get a better budget overall.

  2. The campaign against earmarks could even have the perverse effect of making other federal spending seem benign.

    This logic would mean that you should never pick an egregious example of what you oppose and use it as rhetorical or persuasive device.

    Thanks, but I’ll pass.

  3. Make no mistake about it, “entitlements” are still the third rail of American politics. A lot easier to talk about bridges to nowhere.

    It’s always going to be popular to give away “free money.” One could say that limited government was doomed the moment that FDR signed the bill setting up Social Security.

  4. 1.1% ?! ah well, screw it then. Spend away!

    If I took 1.1% of the money I made each year and flushed it down the toilet you would think I was a complete nutter.

  5. If earmarks and other pork were eliminated, how would that affect congressional elections? If an incumbent can’t bring home the bacon, maybe elections would be more competitive.

  6. Ponnuru’s absolutely right about this issue. Way too many small government types have absolutely no ability to see the forest for the trees, and can’t figure out how government spending can grow so much even if all those silly little pork programs were eliminated.

  7. 1.1% of a budget may translate to a much larger percentage of a deficit.

  8. 1.1% of a budget may translate to a much larger percentage of a deficit.

    Unfortunately, with the prevalence of innumeracy in the US, not many people will think of this. What is it, about 10% of the deficit?

  9. Note that in the first part of the article, Ponnuru says that it’s wrong to oppose pork if said pork is in a defense bill. Thus, both parties have a human shield strategy: Support my program (Mideast intervention, salmon subsidies) or the troops don’t get any money.

  10. David Stockman’s memoir The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed — which I commend to everyone — points out that when Reagan took office, he thought he could cut hell out of the budget by eliminating fraud, abuse and waste (pork). Reagan thought that because when he was governor of California, he actually did that. But state government spending is very different from federal governement spending.

    A significant part of state spending — not a majority, but significant — actually might consist of things like providing a makework filing job to some state legislator’s dimwit cousin. That’s just not true at the federal level. Federal spending is about defense, and about transfer payments (Social Security, Medicare, etc.). Accordingly, there’s no “fraud” or “abuse” in, say, Social Security to cut: it doesn’t cost very much to cut checks and mail them out, and the level of fraud is de minimis relative to the size of the program. So if you cut Social Security, you are talking about cutting payments to individuals. That may or may not be a good idea, but it’s not a result you can avoid by saying you’ll just cut fraud and waste.

    Not incidentally, all this is something to keep in mind every time you listen to Mitt Romney talk about what he’d do to the federal budget if he were President.

  11. I don’t think Ponnuru says that opposing pork is bad, only that it’s overhyped.

    You’re not going to eliminate all pork. So you trim pork by 15%. Sounds great at first pass, but it’s still only 0.15% of the budget.

    How much better to cut 3% from every program?

    More importantly, Ponnuru doesn’t have to be completely correct for this to be an important lesson.

  12. Expanded entitlement spending (like “free health care for all”) is popular right now…It’s happening because an aging population is shaking in its khakis about risk and it wants the government to fix that.

    It’s worth pointing out that many of the countries offering “Socialized Medicine” held up for scorn over the past few years – namely the UK and Cananda – look like pretty well-run programs to many Americans.

    The citizenry appears healthy and happy with the system and the countries even have economically thriving elective surgery options as well.

    It doesn’t help the conservative cause on this issue when the Medicare Part D benefit sent many of those aging folks looking to Canada for a solution.

    I’m not expressing support or admiration for socialized medicine…I’m just point out some observations that make the prospect more palatable to many Americans.

  13. alkali,

    You might have a point but I’m betting that every federal worker has a cushy retirement package that sucks billions out of our pockets. And judging by what I see going on at the DMV or the post office, I suspect they could lay off about half the workers, crack the whip on the other half, and get the same results. All of that is big, big bucks. Probably more than earmarks.

  14. This is similar to my argument for why we should not over-hype the importance of pushing for the legalization of marijuana: It makes it that much less likely any other drugs would be legalized.

  15. The fact that “earmarks amounted to only 1.1 percent of the federal budget” doesn’t mean that ‘pork’ is only 1.1 percent.

    There’s plenty of pork in the regular budget.

    Every time a congressperson angles for an unnecessary defense project, a new focus for an existing agency, a new regulation or enforcement guideline for a non-issue, an over-hyped disaster claim or an overblown cleanup project of a local problem looking to be healed by federal money, it amounts to pork.

    The problem is pernicious. Earmarks are just easy to single out.

  16. Rhywun suggests:

    You might have a point but I’m betting that every federal worker has a cushy retirement package that sucks billions out of our pockets. And judging by what I see going on at the DMV or the post office, I suspect they could lay off about half the workers, crack the whip on the other half, and get the same results. All of that is big, big bucks. Probably more than earmarks.

    I’d remind you that the DMV is a state agency, which actually supports my point.

    Nitpicking aside, as of December 2005, there are about 2.4 million federal government employees, 0.7 million of which are defense related and 1.8 million of which are not. Federal government expenditures in 2005 ran to about $2.5 trillion dollars, of which about $0.5 trillion is defense and $2.0 of which is not.

    There are about 16.1 million state and local government employees. State and local government expenditures in 2005 ran to $1.7 trillion. To summarize:

    Federal gov’t employees per $b of spending: 960
    — Defense: 1400
    — Non-defense: 900

    State/local gov’t employees per $b of spending: 9500

    The upshot is that it doesn’t make sense to think of the federal government as a payroll intensive operation.

  17. People wouldn’t be so much in approval of a socialized health system were it not the abysmal mess that the private sector has made of it. There have been too many scandals of people paying insurance in good faith and then getting screwed over by insurance companies that make them jump through innumerable hoops, quibble over every charge on the bill, call everything a “prior condition” and refuse to pay, period. Then they hike up the premiums or suddenly throw one off coverage.

    No wonder people are screaming for the government to step in. The private market has had its chance and has FAILED.

  18. gr,

    When half of all health care spending goes through the govt., and the health care industry is highly regulated, how do you expect the “private sector” to succeed? You’d think someone calling themselves a realist would look at the real facts!

  19. grumpy realist,
    Once the government has forced insurance companies to violate a “principle of insurance,” it’s like talking about “a little bit pregnant.”
    That happened years ago. Rosemary’s Baby is still gestating.

  20. Ruthless, mad max, grumpy realist, thoreau, etc…just use your real names for fuck sakes…

    The idea that you are a member of some underground libertarian cartel chastised by society unable to reveal your secret identity is a comic book fantasy.

    I will not legitimize your behavior by calling you cowards….and I think irrationally paranoid is more accurate.

  21. I think Ponnuru is missing the main point of attacking earmarks: They are a form of corruption. They may not be blatant enough to be punishable under federal criminal statutes, but they are a form of pay-off by legislators using other people’s money to enhance their own power. It’s therefore sensible and right to expose earmarks and attack them, to embarrass the most piggish and least ethical among legislators.

    If a big company paid a $25,000 bribe to a bureaucrat to get a government contract, would you say that’s meaningless because the money is a negligible part of the company’s budget? Ponnuru’s argument misses the point in a similar (although less egregious) way.

  22. Well said, jbd.

  23. We want the public to be look more critically at govt spending. To stop assuming that the politicians do what is best for the people (or even do something “reasonable”).

    Earmarks get that point across. Its not the only argument to use, but it is a good one.

    If they see that the sausage machine yields the bridge-to-nowhere, they may be more willing to wonder if milk price supports make sense.

  24. To the extent the premise is correct, it’s a 2 way street. The radical taints the moderate reform as much as the moderate reform taints the radical. Sometimes in order for reform arguments to carry weight, if there is also a radical agenda being pursued by anyone simultaneously, the reformers must specifically renounce or distance themselves from the radical agenda, and acknowledge acceptance of the premises of those opposed to the radical agenda.

    Ya gotta do what ya gotta do. And that means that sometimes to be trusted, ya gotta lie. Strange as it may seem, lies breed trust. Or not strange; that’s what “confidence” is, after all.

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