Wednesday, February 01, 2006

How I've come to love the spending... or why I don't get all worked up about pork and why I think the Porkbusters are going nowhere...

McQ of QandO has been a tad critical of my lack of enthusiasm for the on-going efforts to cut back Congressional budget earmarks. McQ thinks not only that these efforts have a good chance of winning but that they will be but a first step in a continued and eventually successful assault on Congressional fiscal irresponsibility. I think otherwise, and for three reasons: (1) they're not going to win, (2) even if they do 'win', their victory won't amount to much more than a hill of beans, and (3) even if they do win, their winning won't lead to additional cuts in Congressional spending. And rather than continue to clutter up his comments section (I seem to be wearing out my welcome), I'll lay out my thinking in my own space.

Why they won't win:
'Pork' is in the eye of the critic, as one man's pork is another man's needed infrastructure improvements and worthwhile expenditures. And while 'pork' might be unpopular, building courthouses and bridges and pedestrian walkways are very popular - especially in the district those projects are being built. Since our politicians are not so dumb as to build things that aren't wanted, it's safe to say that every one of the several thousand budget earmarks is supported by the voters in the targeted district. In fact, the number of earmarks is irrefutable proof of the popularity of these designated expenditures. Expecting politicians to give up what their voters want is a tad on the silly side.

The politicians can connect the dots. Assuming a philosophical mesh between politician and district, a politician who 'brings home the bacon' will be a very popular politician. And since popular politicians get re-elected and since earmarks are a good way for a Member of Congress to take credit for the expenditure, there is no more of a chance that Congress will agree to eliminate budget earmarks than there is a chance of them giving up their postal discounts.

And it is silly to think that voters will rise in righteous indignation over 'pork'. Notwithstanding a few people here and there, voters want this money sent their way. Heck, they'll take as much as they can get. No way will, for example, DC-area voters agree to do without federal spending support for the expansion of the DC Metrorail system... especially since that would mean they had to give up the project or pay for it themselves. If voters in the DC area were to complain about anything, it would be that not enough money is being sent their way.... so what's the likelihood of a DC-area Congressman coming out and taking the lead in cutting back the federal government's share of the program? That's right, NONE!

Why, even if McQ's forces win this particular fight, it won't matter:
Budget earmarks are merely a way of Congress to distributing tax dollars around the country and getting rid of earmarks will do nothing to remove the need and desire of Congress to spread the cash around. So, just as campaign donors can circumvent the restrictions of campaign contributions by finding new ways of funneling money into political campaigns, so too will Congress find a way to circumvent restrictions on budget earmarks.

Furthermore, the total amount of money spent via budget earmarks is but a pimple on the elephant's rear end. The $9 billion in Defense Department earmarks and the $24 billion in highway earmarks together are less than 2% of the over $2 Trillion the government will spend in 2006. Eliminating earmarks will have as much impact on the overall fiscal health of the country as would some fat guy foregoing the breath mint after their supersized meal at McDonalds.

Why this won't lead to additional cuts in federal spending:
As much as voters like these designated expenditures, they love the programs on which the real bucks are being spent. Real budget reform would necessitate taking on entitlement spending, would require significant cuts in defense spending, would require significant cuts in just about every discretionary program. And there is no way the public is going to agree on cutting back on Social Security payments... or eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts... or eliminating 4 Army Divisions and the Marine Corps... or selling off 15 National Forests.

There are a few reasons why this is the case. One, enough voters and the politicians they send to Washington care passionately enough about each of the above mentioned areas that they can defeat those who would try to cut back spending in those areas. Every time a Republican President comes to town, they try to lop off some department or program, only to be beaten back.

Two, there is a bit of a Mutual Assured Destruction going on... voters know that to threaten someone else's sacred programs would only invite attack on their own sacred programs... so, by tacit agreement, they refrain from going on the attack. The number of truly committed budget cutters is dwarfed by the number of voters who would like things left just the way they are.

The third reason is that no one really cares about the federal deficit or the overall debt. And why should they? I came of age when Reagan was first elected and I've been hearing of the dangers of the deficit for upwards of twenty years. And yet the sky hasn't fallen... the unemployment rate is the lowest it's been in years... more people are working than at any other time in history... interest rates, even after the recent hikes, are still lower than they were during Carter's term in office... our economy hasn't been left in the dust by the likes of the Japanese and the Germans.

The federal deficit is an abstract. And just like global warming, another big abstract of our time, people aren't going to get too riled up about something that they just don't see negatively affecting them.

Nor do people see any tangible benefits of having a budget in balance. Balancing the budget isn't going to make my taxes go down. I don't see 2% 30-year mortgages on the horizon, but only if only we first cut the deficit. I don't see peace and love and understanding among all of the people of the world, but only if we were to first reduce the amount of money the federal government spends each year.

So, other than what I've said above, I think the likes efforts such as Coburn's and the Bear's PorkBusters campaign are terrific ideas... it gives them something to do with their spare time... just so long as they don't get depressed when their efforts come for naught...