Oct 30 2013

Reform Party of California Commentary; Pork barrel spending: Is the cure worse than the disease?

After years of complaints, congress reluctantly curtailed the practice of earmark spending. That policy shift occurred a few years ago. The practice, sometimes referred to as pork barrel spending, had been criticized for years as wasteful. However, as with most things in politics, the story was not as simple as just eliminating wasteful spending. It now appears that there probably have been unforeseen consequences from reducing earmark spending. One apparent consequence is the disintegration of the power of majority leadership in the House of Representatives. On its face, that assertion would seem to be nonsense because there is no obvious connection between earmarks and House caucus cohesion. Nonetheless, a good argument can now be made that earmark spending was part of the glue that held a majority caucus together. There probably is a strong connection between earmarks, caucus cohesion and actually getting things done, instead of incessant bicker and gridlock.

Specifically, when House majority and committee chairpersons cannot earmark spending in legislation they have less leverage over rank and file members. Those leaders cannot insert spending that is targeted to restive legislators’ voting districts as the quid pro quo for supporting legislation they might not otherwise support. In short, pork was the reward for cohesion. The pork gave legislators something to use in their reelection campaigns, which is the overriding priority for any incumbent. Elimination of most earmark spending stripped away the powerful self-interested incentive that used to hold dissidents in line.[1]

The issue of political self-interest influencing politics is something the Reform Party of California (RPCA) repeatedly raises.[2]

Once earmarks are understood in context, good arguments can be made that responsible earmark spending is a very useful tool in efficient governance. A potential example of “good pork” is the recent law that reopened government and raised the debt ceiling. That law contained a $2.8 billion earmark for a dam in Kentucky and a smaller earmark for the widow of a former democratic U.S. senator.[3] Conservatives jumped on the dam earmark, calling it the “Kentucky Kickback”. The rationale for and defense of inserting the earmark was that it was needed to avoid waste of $160 million tax dollars that would occur if the earmark was not present. Assuming, the $2.8 billion project actually best serves the public interest, there should be nothing wrong with it and no complaints. However, if the project was simple payback for Mitch McConnell’s support in the senate for avoiding a debt ceiling debacle (the RPCA’s suspicion), then the $2.8 billion is arguably waste to some degree or another. Whether the $160 million is worth saving at that or any price is a separate question. It may be that the $160 million should never have been committed in the first place, or, maybe it was sound and unobjectionable all along.

In the weeks leading up to the deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, House Speaker John Boeher tried but failed to get his caucus to support legislation to avoid both the shutdown and breach of the debt ceiling. He failed because Tea Party members, refused to compromise. Would things have played out the same way if House leaders had been in a position to give out pork in exchange for votes? That is hard to know. But if pork was available and successfully used to get enough republican caucus support to change the course of events, that outcome could have been less costly than the real outcome. The situation raises an obvious question. Is it better to have the waste associated with pork or the waste associated with the new gridlock and conflict norm? Specifically, which is the least wasteful – a world with pork or one without it?

Economists are now calculating the cost of debt and budget gridlock dramas of the last couple of years. The U.S. GDP has taken a hit, maybe 0.6% for the 4th quarter (0.15% decrease for the year), and there are real costs associated with the new normal of uncertainty, gridlock and brinksmanship.[4] If you accept the notion that part of the new normal arises from the loss of earmark spending, then logically that has contributed to at least some of the damage and waste that incessant political conflict has inflicted in the last few years.

Of course, the problem in all of this is how to calculate the costs and benefits in a with pork world compared to the relatively pork-free world we now reside in. Maybe the cure is worse than the disease. It was never the case that all earmark spending was pure waste. The problems arose when people in congress acted like spoiled brats and tried to build fun things like former Alaska senator Ted Steven’s bridge to nowhere.[5] That is the problem with earmarks – it feeds political self-interest and the innate urge to abuse it is very powerful. On the other hand, if the absence of earmarks facilitates gridlock and waste[6], we just might have one situation that is better than the other.

The problem with the two-party political system is that it is not capable of honestly assessing the situation. Conservatives will rail at earmarks, even if it turns out to be less wasteful to have it than doing business without them. Congressional leaders would likely welcome earmarks back because it makes their jobs easier. The analysis should be objective, rational and focused on the public interest, but that is not what two-party politics is or does. Two-party politics is, for the most part, subjective, irrational and focused on self-interest. This is why, to a significant extent, status quo two-party politics so broken.


1. This is an excellent example of the power of self-interest in politics. Self-interest is an innate part of human nature. As such, criticizing it may not make a lot of sense. Politicians, many of whom have massive egos, simply are not going to just “rise above” the powerful self-interest instinct. Regardless of how strenuously politicians deny its relevance to themselves personally, it is probably more intelligent to simply acknowledge the fact that self-interest is a powerful driver of behavior for most or all politicians. If you have that mind set, one can readily see that the power of self-interest can be manipulated in service to the public interest, in theory at least. The trick, of course, is figuring out how to align incentives so that they reward service to the public interest as much as, or preferably more than, service to personal political career (re-election). Because of its complexity, that is a topic for another time.

A final point. A good recent example of a self-serving vote was that of Barack Obama against raising the debt ceiling in 2006 when he was in the U.S. Senate. Now, as president the president characterizes that vote as political. In president Obama’s own words: “That was just an example of a new senator making what is a political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the country. And I’m the first one to acknowledge it,” (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2013/10/10/obama-defends-2006-vote-against-raising-the-debt-ceiling/). When the president calls his vote “political”, but one can reasonably argue that is another way to say it was a self-interested vote. This sort of thing happens all the time in politics and that has to be acknowledged before the issue can even begin to be addressed.

2. Link: (http://reformpartyca.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-3/).

3. Link: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/361462/shutdown-deal-includes-pork-barrel-spending-eliana-johnson.

4. Links: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/17/business/economy/high-cost-to-the-economy-from-the-fiscal-impasse.html?_r=0; http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international-business/shutdown-cost-120000-us-jobs-white-house/articleshow/24609063.cms; http://mtstandard.com/news/opinion/shutdown-rattles-economy-sends-wave-of-uncertainty-lack-of-confidence/article_6f594a32-3b9a-11e3-a52f-001a4bcf887a.html.

5. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravina_Island_Bridge.

6. Pork alone isn’t the whole story. Other forces are at work, most notably ideology and gerrymandered house voting districts. The RPCA has previously described the ill effects of the gerrymander beast and ideology on politics (http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-commentary-how-legitimate-is-the-government-shutdown-over-the-aca/; http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-commentary-why-ideology-is-bad-for-politics/).