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.