The liberal case for pork

Last month, the Sunlight Foundation, in conjunction with several other government watchdog groups, unveiled a searchable database to help ordinary citizens locate earmarks in the 2007 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill so that they could ring up their representatives and figure out which little piggie asked for $80,000 for the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids. Or $200,000 for a Portuguese and Lusophone Studies program in Rhode Island. Or $300,000 for an academic coaching program for high school football players in New Jersey. More than 1,800 pork projects were lurking in the $141.9 billion spending bill, and outraged citizens, the idea went, weren't going to take it any more.

It's not hard to be against pork--apart from politicians, nobody seems to like it. Back in April, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 39 percent of Americans declared that "prohibiting" pork should be Congress' top priority. It's the one subject that can unite the left and the right. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently wrote that the Labor-HHS bill would make readers "sick to [their] stomach[s]" and called on Congress to "ban all earmarks, period." Conservative columnist George Will wrote much the same thing in a January column, and David Brooks has advocated, among other solutions, a "one-year earmark moratorium." The idea may be catching on: Arizona Representative Jeff Flake--a relentless shrink-the-government type--has proposed subjecting all earmarks to an up-or-down vote, rather than letting members slip them into bills without debate, a rule that would end pork as we know it.

But is pork really that bad? Since the age of Jefferson, members of Congress have been earmarking money in spending bills for local projects that might not otherwise receive attention from federal agencies--and doing it to win votes back home. (James Monroe warned that pork would be "productive of evil.") And, while it's easy to see why small-government conservatives and knee-jerk deficit hawks dislike earmarks, there's a liberal case for supporting pork. It's not because pork projects are defensible on the merits, although they sometimes can be. It's not because they create jobs, although they can do that, too. Rather, it's because, without pork, activist government would wither and die.

 

If deficit hawks and goo-goo groups had their way, many perfectly good bills would never pass. In 1986, the Reagan administration was trying to shepherd a surprisingly progressive tax-reform bill through Congress. (Although the bill would have reduced the tax rate on the top income bracket, it also raised corporate taxes by $120 billion over five years and simplified the tax code by closing about $300 billion worth of corporate loopholes. More importantly, the bill effectively eliminated federal income taxes for those under the poverty line.) At the time, liberals cheered, while right-wingers in the Reagan administration were furious. William Niskanen, the president's acting chief economic adviser, reportedly said of the bill, "Walter Mondale would have been proud."

The problem was that the reform bill faced an uphill battle through the Senate. A multitude of businesses and special interests risked losing their much-cherished tax breaks, and they lobbied hard against several provisions in the bill. The only way to ensure that the bill survived was to grease it up with pork. A large number of temporary tax preferences--known as "transition rules"--were added to the bill, at the behest of individual Senators, for over 174 beneficiaries, including a variety of cities and municipal facilities. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole worked to get his party behind the reform, and for his efforts received a tax preference for the redevelopment in his home state of Kansas. Even Ohioan Howard Metzenbaum, a longstanding opponent of narrowly-tailored corporate tax breaks, secured exemptions for convention centers in his home state.

As Alan Murray and Jeffrey Birnbaum reported in Showdown at Gucci Gulch, the definitive account of the 1986 tax reform, "Every time [Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob] Packwood ventured onto the Senate floor, his colleagues stuffed pieces of paper into his jacket pocket, with additional requests for transition rules." It was a feeding frenzy. It was obscene. But it also worked: "The transition rules were a necessary evil; they would help assure passage of the bill." And since the exemptions cost little in the context of the larger bill, it was well worth the price.

Less than a decade later, Bill Clinton discovered the virtues of pork while trying to pass his deficit-reduction package in 1993. Since Republicans flatly refused to support the president's budget, Clinton had to strong-arm several holdout Democrats into supporting the bill and its unpalatable tax hikes. Legislative bribery did the trick. Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini stopped opposing the budget after he was promised a cut on Social Security taxes, benefiting seniors (a key constituency in his state). Dianne Feinstein wavered on the bill until she received R&D subsidies for California companies. The budget ended up squeaking through the Senate on Vice President Al Gore's tie-breaking vote and paved the way for balanced budgets late in the decade--a previously unthinkable task which some economists credit with helping to spur the economic boom in the '90s. Pork made it all possible.

The point is this: Any big-government program on the progressive wish list will likely prove even more difficult to pass than the 1986 tax reform or 1993 budget. Single-payer health care? Card check for unions? Reductions in carbon emissions? It won't get done without an orgy of earmarks to entice the inevitable skeptics in Congress. That won't be pretty, but if the price of, say, universal insurance is a bit of borderline corruption here and there, it's a tradeoff worth making. And, while it's true that conservatives can use earmarks to pass their own massive spending programs--the prescription-drug benefit comes to mind--in the long run, institutional mechanisms that enable activist government will favor liberals.

Conservative think tanks know this perfectly well. Why else would they obsess over a practice that constitutes a miniscule portion of the federal budget? According to The Hill, the 1,800 earmarks in the Labor-HHS bill total a mere $496 million--less than half of one percent of the total bill. And it's not as if banning earmarks would return that money to taxpayers, either--the main difference would be that the president, rather than Congress, would decide where it was spent. No, the real worry, as Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation has written, is that "Pork also leads to bigger government."

This dynamic may well explain why earmarks have risen so dramatically under one-party GOP rule. (John McCain has noted that earmarks have increased from 4,000 in 1994 to more than 15,000 in 2005.) Republicans, as a rule, don't believe in big-government programs to help people. But those programs are also popular; poll after poll shows that voters like it when they think the government is helping them. And since, with a few notable exceptions, the GOP has shown itself averse to government spending--and prone to making cuts in discretionary programs that benefit actual human beings--their representatives likely need to dish out more pork than would otherwise be necessary in order to appease voters.

It's true, excess pork can transform a bad spending bill into something downright grotesque. And, as a form of political patronage, it definitely creates opportunities for corruption. (The recent and dramatic upswing in pork barrel spending has certainly increased the demand for lobbyists; The New York Times reported recently that even small towns are now sending advocates to Washington to ensure that they win their fair share of earmarks.) But the problem here isn't earmarks, per se. The problem is the cozy relationship between lobbyists and politicians--and a ruling Republican Party that has kept itself in power by closely and explicitly aligning itself with the fortunes of K Street.

Some reforms to the earmark process are undoubtedly necessary. Last week, the Senate passed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which would publicize all contracts handed out by the federal government and eliminate some of the secrecy surrounding the earmarking process. (Another recent grassroots campaign orchestrated by bloggers revealed that Robert Byrd and Ted Stevens--two of the Senate's most notorious porkers--had been blocking the bill.) That's commendable; more transparency never hurts--the Sunlight Foundation might call it the best disinfectant. But if the choice is between curtailing earmarks--let alone abolishing them altogether--and serving progressive ends (however imperfectly), then perhaps liberals should learn to wallow in the mud.

Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic.

By Bradford Plumer