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Tilting at Windmills

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June 21, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PORK: IT'S THE OTHER INCUMBENT PROTECTION RACKET....Max Sawicky defends congressional pork today in his Pajamas Media column (yes, he has one), and it reminds me of something I ran across the other day. A couple of weeks ago Anderson Cooper set his interns loose to call every member of Congress and ask them what earmarks they had requested in the FY 2008 budget. Most of them scurried into hiding, but it turned out that my congressman, John Campbell, had his earmark requests already posted on his website. Here they are:

  • The Upper Newport Bay Ecosystem Restoration Project

  • The Irvine Basin Groundwater and Surface Water Improvement Project

  • Dana Point Harbor

  • Aliso Creek Mainstream Project

  • Prado Dam Flood Control and Water Conservation Project

Now, I don't know anything about these projects, but I can pretty much guarantee that all of them are popular with Campbell's constituents. There's certainly nobody here in the California 48th who's going to mount a Porkbusters campaign against Campbell for successfully getting funding for this list of feel-good ecological projects.

Which, paradoxically enough, is the real reason pork is so corrupting. Not because it wastes money: as Max points out, even today the total pork budget is a drop in the federal bucket (and the high-profile abuses are a smaller drop still). What's more, if pork went away most of the money would get spent anyway, just on slightly different stuff. Even the money for the Bridge to Nowhere would simply be shifted to other Alaska projects if it got killed. No, the real problem with pork is the very fact that it is popular. It's yet another way for incumbents to bring home the bacon, win the support of another few thousand constituents, and cement yet another 20-point victory in the next election.

Campbell's earmarks are pretty instructive in this regard. I mean, the guy is a conservative Republican in Orange County, and short of the second coming of FDR his seat is safe until the day he dies. But he's taking no chances: not only is he asking for a few earmarks, but he's requesting funding for a laundry list of environmental do-goodism. Why? Because he can already count on the votes of all the conservative Republicans around here, and these earmarks are a good way of building some cheap support among people who wouldn't normally back him. Any Democrat running against Campbell will always have to fight the usual conservative OC headwind, but now they'll also have to fight the ambivalence of their own natural supporters, who may not like Campbell in general but appreciate the fact that he helped get them some money for that ecosystem restoration project they've been promoting for the past decade.

As a budget buster, earmarks aren't really that big a deal, even after the Republican explosion of the past ten years. As part of Congress's incumbent protection racket, though, they work like a charm. If there's a reason to get rid of them, that's the one to focus on.

Kevin Drum 12:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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It really just goes back to the fact that for most congressmen (and women), getting reelected is much more important than doing what's right for the country.

Just out of curiousity Kevin, are these projects worth funding on their merits, or are they true pork?

Posted by: mfw13 on June 21, 2007 at 12:42 PM | PERMALINK

I think the founders had it in mind for the federal government to do things the states could not. So, considering those or any earmarks, what is of national importance in them? Why couldn't they be done by the state?

Posted by: MarkH on June 21, 2007 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

Exactly right, along with the fact that earmarks are a common way for members of congress to enrich themselves, in the manner of Hastert, Reid, etc.

Posted by: Will Allen on June 21, 2007 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

If I may channel Matt Yglesias for a moment, if there is a positive social outcome from essentialy minor corruption such as this, who is harmed?

Yes, there's a goo-goo argument and an abstract Jeffersonian argument against incumbency, but when an incumbent actually seeks to provide services for constituents beyond the base that elected him, isn't that the system working?

Posted by: The Confidence Man on June 21, 2007 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

mfw13: I honestly don't know. I know about these areas in general terms (especially the first earmark), but I don't know the details. However, my guess is that they're actually pretty meritorious. They're certainly not obvious boondoggles, as near as I can tell. (Of course, maybe that's why Campbell was willing to put them on his website while the others scurried for the closet when Cooper's minions called.....)

What's more, there's nothing really wrong with members of Congress having some influence over what gets done in their districts. That's what they're elected for. It's when they can take total credit for big chunks of spending that the process gets really corrupting.

Will: Yes, absolutely. In absolute terms, though, that's probably small potatoes.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on June 21, 2007 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

But maybe these projects are a good idea. So how else should they get funded?

Posted by: Matt D on June 21, 2007 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

Not to be too cynical, but living here in the west it would not be uncommon for projects with names like "Prado Dam Flood Control and Water Conservation Project" to actually be a dam and reservoir project pushed by the development community and opposed by environmentalists. It seem all of Campbell's earmarks could fall into this category. Anybody know what they really are?

Posted by: Kevin Hughes on June 21, 2007 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

My compliments on this post's excellent headline.

Posted by: shortstop on June 21, 2007 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Confidence Man: Up to a point, I agree. In fact, I've often thought that the answer here is simply to institutionalize earmarks. Say, for example, every member of Congress gets a flat $20 million per year in earmarks. That allows a certain amount of local control of federal spending (good) and doesn't allow the local congress critter to claim extra credit, since the money is allocated to the district no matter what (also good).

There would have to be rules of some kind, of course, though I suspect that transparency requirements might be enough. Worth thinking about, anyway.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on June 21, 2007 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

The problem is with the abuse of earmarks to do favors for cronies and contributors. Jerry Lewis, Duncan Hunter, Duke Cunningham---defense projects that waste money and that the Defense Dept doesn't want, much less need; planes that don't fly--you get the point. It is the GOP's prediliction for disguising graft as pork that is the problem.

Posted by: Mimikatz on June 21, 2007 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

How do you know, Kevin, that these are the only pork -- excuse me, earmarks -- that your Congressman has requested, as opposed to just a list of the ones he wants his constituents to know about?

Posted by: Glenn on June 21, 2007 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

Let's look at the Aliso Creek Mainstream Project
…The proposed project includes: laying two conduits from an onshore location on 2nd Street in the City of Hermosa Beach to terminate at seafloor portals 2,640 feet west of mean high tide line; burying two cables, where feasible, in State and federal waters to the 1,200-meter depth; surface-laying the cables from the 1,200-meter depth to the 1,800-meter depth; and laying 3,100 feet of cable along public rights-of-way within cities of Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach.
The proposed project includes annexation of an approximately 555-acre portion of Los Angeles County to the City of Los Angeles in conjunction with the development of a mixed-use community with approximately 5,800 dwelling units, 2,300,000 square feet of office/research & development, 250,000 square feet of community facilities, 225,000 square feet of neighborhood retail, a 300-room hotel, and 285 acres of open space.

Sweet sweet deal if you're one of the developers.

Posted by: Mike on June 21, 2007 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

How about some numbers to back up your assertions. By that kind of logic Kevin it would be OK to let gangrene go on your little toe because it's only on your little toe and it's so small it doesn't matter. If the people of Alaska want to spend 250-500 million dollars on a bridge to nowhere let them but where I live that kind of money could go towards some actual good.

Posted by: Gandalf on June 21, 2007 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

MattD: They could be funded by the State or City that wants them.

A major problem with pork is that it's a tax on districts with new Congressman. The elder statesman of Congress (Byrd, etc.) make the rest of us pay for projects that benefit no one other than the people in their district. Often, pork is a deliberate handout to campaign contributors.

The federal government is federal; tautologically, it ought deal with national concerns.

Posted by: cure on June 21, 2007 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

mfw13: for most congressmen (and women), getting reelected is much more important than doing what's right for the country

No one in Congress represents, or is supposed to represent, "the country". They're supposed to represent their districts (house) or states (senate). Fortunately (perhaps even by design) all congressional districts and all states are within the country. Therefore they sometimes find common ground that represents the country.

Posted by: alex on June 21, 2007 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

cure: Often, pork is a deliberate handout to campaign contributors.

That's the real problem. Pork that a congress critter's constituents want is honestly bringing home the bacon. This all gets back to campaign finance reform.

Remember, pork is a bridge in the other guy's district - a bridge in my district is an infrastructure project.

Posted by: alex on June 21, 2007 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

Exactly right, along with the fact that earmarks are a common way for members of congress to enrich themselves, in the manner of Hastert, Reid, etc.

Now this is another conservative I can work with. Will Allen, I admire the way you casually slipped in that equivalence of the Hastert and Reid earmark stories, sir. Would that our other political compatriots had half your guile. I spend a good quarter of my time here dissociating myself from cretinous GOPers who do our cause more harm than good. You and I know better, eh?

All the whining about pork is growing tiresome. As usual, liberals criticize games in which they can't compete, and the talented athletes are vilified for exercising a little muscle on behalf of local voters.. Mutual back-scratching is an American tradition, my peeps, and only a non-player questions this. While we're at it, stop your yammering about using the office for personal enrichment. Why shouldn't an incumbent who's given up his private earning power take advantage of the paltry goodies extended him as meager compensation? You crybabies not only wail about thoroughly understandable land deals; you even begrudge a good man a decent dinner and a little hoo-ha every time a lobbyist foots the bill. Ridiculous.

Posted by: Norman Rogers on June 21, 2007 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

What is wrong with bedrock conservatives being in favor of ecological-defense projects? The environment isnt a left/right issue on ts own, though the methods for addressing environmental problems will vary with ideological flavor.

Posted by: troglodyte on June 21, 2007 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin Drum: As a budget buster, earmarks aren't really that big a deal, even after the Republican explosion of the past ten years. As part of Congress's incumbent protection racket, though, they work like a charm.

It's odd to call doing what your constituents want an "incumbent protection racket". In fact, if everyone in Congress tried to protect their incumbency by doing what their constituents want, we'd all be better off. I would call such a system a "representative government".

Posted by: alex on June 21, 2007 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

The The Irvine Basin Groundwater and Surface Water Improvement Project and the Prado Dam Project seem ok.

Still these are intrastate projects. In Jackson's day, he would have vetoed them on the grounds there was no interstate activity that would have made it constitutional. California, and all states, should fund their own intra-state projects without federal support. It would reduce the power of lobbyists and of the Washington cronyism mentality.

Posted by: Mike on June 21, 2007 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

The problem, Alex, is that they are getting it doen with other's people's money. As Mike notes, if these projects are such fine ideas, there is nothing which prevents the citizens of California from paying for them.

Posted by: Will Allen on June 21, 2007 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

Why should people in other parts pay for these? Because we pay for their projects. We send money to Kansas for crop insurance. We send money to Georgia for a military base. If you want to play that game I'd love it. California is NET donor so we'd come out ahead.

I agree with Max and would add one additional reason "pork" is OK in moderation. It is the grease that allows people with different interests to reach agreement on bills. "I'll support your dam if you'll support my Post Office." That is how things are done in the real world and only churls - and Ralph Nader - find offense.

Posted by: richard locicero on June 21, 2007 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder how many states have the sort of allocation for pork that Kevin raises as a possible solution (palliative?). I know New York does, and its legislature is notorious for dysfunction (same parties control the same houses for time immemorial). (Granted, it may not be cause and effect and it's not like I have any good ideas.)

Posted by: Bill Harshaw on June 21, 2007 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

I live in Murtha Land, and would like to thank the rest of the country for putting our nation's Counter Drug Intelligence Center (or whatever it's called) in Johnstown, PA, a real hotbed of drug enforcement activity. Also a whole slew of other military "plus-ups" that come to west central PA. Murtha is a king of pork, possibly only bettered by Byrd "FBI fingerprint center in WVA" or Stevens "Bridge to nowhere". Can't sneer at Lott either.

Posted by: Volunteering on June 21, 2007 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

Richard, yes, the game would be better if played that way. Nice to see you agree.

Posted by: Will Allen on June 21, 2007 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

Still, if these are meritorious projects, how else do you fund them?

If you throw it back to the states, you get the same dynamic. If Orange County wanted money for a water conservation project, the representatives from Fresno would gripe about pork - until the Orange County reps cut a deal with the Fresno reps so Fresno got some goodies they wanted, too. In fact, pork-barrel politics are arguably worse on the state level than on the federal level.

The only other alternative I can think of is to make developers pay for infrastructure improvements out of their own pockets. Yeah, right.

Posted by: dr sardonicus on June 21, 2007 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

I think the founders had it in mind for the federal government to do things the states could not.

Nonsense! Projects like this have been getting funded since the !st Congress, and are cklearly witrhin the spending power ("to promote the general welfare"). You can argue the merits of indivual projects, but you can't say that they're unconstitutional, unless you have a flat earther-like view of the constitution.

Posted by: rea on June 21, 2007 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

dr, I'd prefer Orange County voters horsetrading with Fresno voters, as opposed to a few people in Alaska. If a state's political culture gets too noxious, it's a lot easier to vote with your feet from Long Beach to Denver than from Long Beach to Vancouver.

Posted by: Will Allen on June 21, 2007 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

rea, the preamble of the Constitution does not render the rest of the document null and void. Yes, there are many earmarks that are constitutional, but they relate to interstate commerce or activities which are specifically enumerated. The fact that promoting the general welfare is mentioned in the preamble does not mean that people who wrote the document were just writing filler with the rest of it. Otherwise, they could have saved a lot of time by just writing "Congress can do whatever it wishes to promote the general welfare", and then retired to the Philly taverns. They didn't, and to any intellectually honest person, that means that Congress has limits to what activities it can pursue.

Posted by: Will Allen on June 21, 2007 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

What a bunch of bullshit.Some you sound like mafia members. Your talking like every project is pork. They're not. Obviously a lot of projects should be done.whatever state that they're done in is open to wrangling and political horse trading but there's a whole lot money spent on unadulterated bullshit.There are a couple old sayings out that apply.If it smells like shit and it looks like shit it usually is shit. Also a billion dollars here and a billion there and pretty soon your talking about real money.

Posted by: Gandalf on June 21, 2007 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

For me, it is not the budget busting aspect of earmarks that is disturbing, but the forgiveness of liability or welfare for the wealthy that I object to.

I do not know anything about the projects listed, but some seem to me to be correcting problems (Ecosystem Restoration Project) created by others who are not being held liable or providing public assistance (Dana Point Harbor) to the wealthy or business class.

Posted by: Brojo on June 21, 2007 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

Will, rea was slightly misquoting but was in fact referring not to the preamble but to the Taxing and Spending Clause of Article I:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States

The notion that this spending power is limited to promoting the other enumerated powers has been specifically rejected by the Supreme Court. Congress may pretty much spend on anything it pleases, provided there is not a specific prohibition in the Constitution. (They couldn't set up segregated federal schools, for example.)

Posted by: Glenn on June 21, 2007 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, Glenn, and the Supreme Court once ruled that it was constitutional for the government to have a person with a low I.Q. sterilized without the person's consent. That was nonsense too.

Posted by: Will Allen on June 21, 2007 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, Glenn, and the Supreme Court once ruled that it was constitutional for the government to have a person with a low I.Q. sterilized without the person's consent. That was nonsense too.

I dunno, that's looking like pretty sound reasoning right about now.

Posted by: Glenn on June 21, 2007 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

As you discredit my previous points, I'll just keep moving my goalposts. I can do this all day. Also, you're all illiterate.

Posted by: Wil Allen on June 21, 2007 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

There are a couple of points here that seem pretty obvious but people too accustomed to our system of government are missing.

Regional representation made a lot more sense when the constitution was written. States had no inclination to give up more autonomy than they needed, and the federal budget was really small, so pork was not a problem.

Difficulty is, pork is really a part of the legitimate political process in a regional representation system. Its part of a congressman's job to help out his constituents. The problem is not with the congressman. The problem is with his job definition. Congressional districts do not need to exist, and they shouldn't. It is absurd for Orange County to have direct representation at the federal level. This is not how other countries do things b/c it doesn't make sense. Orange County can be represented just fine at the state level.

It would be nice if we could change the setup for the House, but it ain't gonna happen. We're stuck with the system that we have. Earmarks for beneficial district projects are going to happen. We should be looking to prevent outright bribes, but even that is a longshot. I like the way Norman defends bribes by calling outsiders jealous. Is he even for real?

Posted by: mpowell on June 21, 2007 at 5:20 PM | PERMALINK
It is absurd for Orange County to have direct representation at the federal level. This is not how other countries do things b/c it doesn't make sense.

Actually, it is how plenty of other countries do things, and I'd say it makes at least as much sense as the most common alternative, some variation on party list proportional systems where indivudal representatives are directly accountable only to their political party and only very indirectly to the electorate.

Of course, it is quite practical to get some of the desirable effects of both proportional systems and the present US systems, while mitigating some of the worst problems of each, by using a candidate-centered system that produces proportional results (the most well known, though not necessarily the best, example being Single Transferable Vote) in small multimember districts (of, say, 5 members per district.)

Posted by: cmdicely on June 21, 2007 at 5:29 PM | PERMALINK

It's a lot of fun for the media to decry so-called "pork" without going into the details.

These are local projects for local districts, often worked hard for by local interests. Though there may be a few (the bridge-to-nowhere) that are little more than graft, most that I have come in contact with are legitimate and needed.

That said, I share the concern of some over the means sometimes employed by the Congress to fund them.

I'd prefer to see local projects funded in, say, an annual local projects authorization bill that spells out some of the most important details on each one.

This would not necessarily stop the national media from branding it all "pork," but individual congressmen could offset that through their local media outlets, etc. Nor would it stop ignorant, uniformed bloggers from attacking it, but few pay any attention to these gasbags anyway.

Local projects should pass be able to pass muster in the sunlight. Most can, I have no doubt.

Posted by: theotherside on June 21, 2007 at 5:35 PM | PERMALINK

I think Kevin's partially right. But it's not so much that pork allows a congressman to draw a few supporters from the other side by funding cared-about local projects as it is that nobody is joining up to fight hard for the other side because their pet issue has been satisfactorily dealt with. In your case, those local enviros don't feel the need to go all-out against Campbell because he actually took care of the eco projects they focused on. They almost surely won't vote for the solid Republican, but they probably won't work hard for his opponent, either. And that's a powerful incumbent protection racket.

Posted by: EM on June 21, 2007 at 7:07 PM | PERMALINK

I really don't mind the pork. However, I do very much resent the continued lack of public disclosure as a matter of responsible and principled political candor.

If a project or program is truly worthy of merit as a line item in the federal budget, there's no valid reason on God's green earth why citizens should not also know that line item's congressional sponsor(s).

My experience as both congressional and statre legislative staff leaves me to conclude that regardless of inconvenience to public officials or whomever, politics functions at its optimum level whenever the public's right to scrutiny is expressly provided for.

While you and I may never choose to exercise that often tedious right, just the mere knowledge that members of the public have that option keeps most public officials on their toes and out of trouble.

I merely offer you our present national bout of political herpes that is the Bush administration, as an example of what can happen when the public's right to know is denied, deterred or otherwise suppressed.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on June 21, 2007 at 8:04 PM | PERMALINK

I merely offer you our present national bout of political herpes that is the Bush administration

As apt a description as any I have heard.

Posted by: Disputo on June 21, 2007 at 9:07 PM | PERMALINK

Earmarks are the broken windows of governmental corruption. When they're allowed to slide, it just encourages the congresscritters to push the envelope, and before you know it we've got Duke Cunningham, and William Jefferson.

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