Politics & Policy

There’s No Defending Pork

A key battleground for the GOP.

I was surprised and disappointed to see the piece “Against the Porkbusters: Conservatives should find another crusade ” in the latest edition of National Review. While NR usually can be relied upon to sharpen and challenge Republican establishment thinking, this piece was an odd defense of establishment lethargy. Ramesh Ponnuru succinctly and artfully summarized nearly all of the rationalizations I have heard in defense of pork from Republican leaders and establishment apologists in the past decade.

First, it’s important for conservatives to understand who the Porkbusters are and who they are not. The Porkbusters are not the visionaries behind the “Porkbusters” website — Glenn Reynolds and N.Z. Bear, nor are they conservative activists at issue groups, nor are they members of Congress like Jim DeMint, Jeff Flake, or myself.

Instead the Porkbusters represent what is arguably the only grassroots movement since 1994 to gain traction and build momentum on the core American principle of limited government. The Porkbusters movement is not particularly concerned with the electoral fate of Republicans or Democrats, but they are concerned with the fate of the Republic and their own tax dollars. Quite simply, Porkbusters is a movement comprised of individuals who are just plain sick of their money being wasted, quite often in secret, by self-serving politicians.

Establishment Republicans loathe the Porkbusters because they are effective. They are so effective, in fact, that one powerful politician said of them in 2006, “I’ll just say this about the so-called Porkbusters. I’m getting damn tired of hearing from them. They have been nothing but trouble ever since Katrina.” Recall that in October 2005, the Senate voted to protect the “Bridge to Nowhere” by a vote of 82-15. Today, thanks to unrelenting pressure, both parties are clamoring to out-reform the other. Rather than belittling this movement, the Republican establishment should embrace and learn from it.

One of the most troubling aspects of the establishment’s hostility toward Porkbusters are not necessarily the arguments marshaled in defense of pork but the degree to which apologists are out of touch and unaware of their own condescension toward the movement. For instance, the suggestions in the National Review piece that Porkbusting carries with it “potentially dangerous consequences” that might endanger our troops or justify government-run health care are peculiar. Perhaps it is the Republican establishment’s tendency to portray Porkbusters as the proletariat — the politically illiterate, unwashed masses who need guidance — that inspired a blogger at Redstate to describe pork apologists as “Earmarxists.”

Earmarxism is an appropriate term because earmarks are a tool career politicians use to reinforce the belief that the average citizen needs the federal government, and their individual member of Congress, to provide for their basic needs. Promoting this culture of dependency is expected from Democrats, but it is deadly for Republicans. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s comment last year in defense of pork — that individual members of Congress know best where to put traffic lights in the district — illustrated how and why the Republican majority self-destructed. If the public is supposed to look to their member of Congress, not their mayor or city manager, to place traffic lights, then why not just vote for Democrats?

The biggest problem facing the Porkbusters, according to the free-spending GOP establishment, is the fact that the core earmark reform of transparency won’t do much to cut pork. It is hard to measure the impact of a reform that is not yet in place, but that is beside the point. The unstated assumption behind this critique is that the public wants earmarks, and that earmarks are good politics. Defenders of pork-barrel spending believe this point is beyond debate and more transparency will only lead to more bragging about pork and ultimately more pork.

The results of the last election, however, suggest that pork projects really are both bad policy and bad politics. Among the nine Republican appropriators (members who have the greatest ability to bring home the bacon) who were vulnerable in the last election, only three won. One vulnerable House Republican who did win, Rep. John Doolittle (R.,Calif.), has since had to give up his seat on the committee because of an ongoing investigation. Yes, many factors including Iraq impacted these races, but the ability to deliver pork did not save these vulnerable incumbents.

Moreover, when asked, the public has said it doesn’t like earmarks nearly as much as the Earmarxists would like to believe. In April 2006, the Wall Street Journal and NBC released a poll that asked Americans which issue “is most important for Congress to act on before it adjourns before the election.” An astonishing 39 percent of Americans said they want to prohibit “Members of Congress from directing federal funds to specific projects benefiting only certain constituents.” A February 2007 poll by the Democratic polling firm Democracy Corps found that nearly two out of every three respondents would be more likely to support a Congress that “eliminate[d] earmarked budget allocations.” Caused in no small part by the GOP establishment’s spending binge and defense of earmarks over the past few years, Republicans now face sizable double-digit deficits.

Because I believe the public would rather manage their own dollars than send it to Washington to be redistributed in an Earmarxist scheme, I believe transparency will lead to less pork and smaller government. Even if the earmark reforms in the stalled “ethics bill” are not officially enacted, taxpayers will still be able to “Google” their government in 2008 once the Office of Management and Budget sets up a searchable database of government spending, as established in the Federal Financial Accountability and Transparency Act, a bill I co-authored with Sen. Barrack Obama that was signed into law in September 2006. The fact that Sen. Ted Stevens and Sen. Robert Byrd, two of the biggest proponents of earmarks and pork-barrel spending in the Congress, attempted to secretly block the bipartisan transparency bill illustrates the fallacy of the argument that transparency will just make it easier to spend money. This debate point should be revisited in a couple of years once taxpayers, bloggers, and reporters are empowered to connect the dots like never before between members, earmark recipients, and donors.

In his piece, Ponnuru also argues that getting rid of earmarks saves taxpayers no money. According to this argument, the Porkbuster masses incorrectly believe cutting earmarks cuts spending when money that is not earmarked will be spent anyway by unelected bureaucrats who don’t know how to place traffic lights or bridges as well as members. This is a false choice. Just because many pork-addicted politicians don’t have the will or courage to cut spending does not mean that it cannot be done. Whenever I offer amendments to eliminate earmarks, I make sure to eliminate the spending as well.

The critical point that is ignored by those who promote pork-barrel spending is that Congress has the power to spend less money whenever it chooses. It is very simple. Congress can decide to do fewer earmarks and spend less money. If Congress spends $64 billion on earmarks one year they can decide to do no earmarks the next year and reduce the budget by $64 billion. Moreover, if Congress doesn’t like how an agency spends money we have no one to blame but ourselves. Republicans should be embarrassed, not reassured, by an argument in which Congress portrays itself as a helpless victim of the budget rules and limits it sets for itself.

Finally, it’s argued that Porkbusters can’t accomplish much because earmarks are a small part of the federal budget. If the Porkbusters wanted to accomplish something meaningful, the argument goes, they would tackle entitlements. Yet, Porkbusters are focusing on earmarks precisely because they do understand the magnitude of our fiscal challenges. No one can accuse Jim DeMint of not understanding the problem with Social Security, and I would welcome a debate with anyone who would suggest my focus on cutting pork means I don’t grasp our unfunded liabilities as they relate to health care. In fact, Senator DeMint and I have major reform bills focused on these big ticket problems.

Porkbusters accurately believe Congress will never get serious about fixing Social Security and Medicare when it’s preoccupied with swimming pools and teapot museums. And until American taxpayers can trust Republicans to correctly handle the “small things,” like Bridges to Nowhere, they will never trust us to handle the “big things,” like Medicare and Social Security.

The debate about earmarks within the Republican party needs to continue. The NR’s article defending earmarks is important precisely because it represents what many Republican leaders and rank-and-file members of Congress say in private caucus meetings about Porkbusters, but not always in public.

The key question seems to be who is on a tangent and who needs to come home to core Republican ideas. I would contend that the Republican establishment itself has gone off on a tangent, which is why we lost our majority. Our majority achieved some major victories like welfare reform and tax relief, but we also have as a legacy dozens of defeated incumbents who received a lot of earmarks. If those members spent less time earmarking and more time doing the hard work of oversight that is required to achieve incremental victories, we may have preserved our majority.

If the earmark apologists agree with Ponnuru, who believes inveighing against waste, fraud and abuse is a waste of time, particularly as it relates to pork, one has to wonder why the Republican Party exists. President Reagan’s observation that “government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem” has never been more accurate.

The Federal Financial Management subcommittee I chaired last year discovered, through 49 oversight hearings, that our government wastes at least $200 billion every year. If Congress took the modest step of eliminating half of that waste, or $100 billion, we would save taxpayers $1.3 trillion over ten years and $29 trillion over 75 years, adjusted for inflation annually at 3 percent. This approach, combined with entitlement reform, is the only way to prevent the coming demographic tsunami from triggering massive tax increases that will severely undermine our global competitiveness.

Establishment Republicans can either continue to bash the Porkbusters, or they can find common cause with this movement. Conservative Republicans who cheer Porkbusters aren’t expecting to see grand reform overnight. They would simply be content with Republicans acting like Republicans. That’s advice the GOP would be wise to follow.

 – Dr. Tom Coburn is a United States senator (R.) from Oklahoma.


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