Patterico's Pontifications


An Honest Question About Pork — Or, Why Pork Matters

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 7:05 am

Before he was dragged kicking and screaming into supporting an earmark ban, Mitch McConnell and a lot of the Smart People were arguing that a ban on earmarks does not reduce spending by a single penny.

Why wouldn’t it?

Can one of the Smart People explain this logic to me?

The argument I have seen is that eliminating earmarks simply turns over spending power to the executive. But I don’t understand why this must be the case.

Let’s take a standard example of an earmark from the post below. Barack Obama, Fearless Champion of Responsible Spending and Opponent of Earmarks, is the junior Senator from Illinois. In that capacity, he requests $1 million in an earmark intended for a local hospital at which, coincidentally, his wife works — at a $316,962 per year job in the position of executive administrator, which is hospital terminology for “Wife Of Guy Who Might Give Us Money.”

The earmark is rejected by lawmakers. Why does this mean that the President now gets to decide how to spend that $1 million? Why can’t lawmakers decide to simply remove that spending from the appropriations bill?

You know: cutting spending! What a concept!

The idea that this approach is rejected out of hand — that any dollar not directed by Congress becomes a dollar directed by the President — seems to miss the entire point. Why can’t a dollar (or a million, or millions or billions) not directed by Congress be returned to the taxpayer? Or, even more shockingly, used to reduce our crushing debt?

As for the size of earmarks, it’s true that they are a small part of the budget. But it’s symptomatic of the mindset.

If you are missing your mortgage payment every month, it’s probably not because you’re subscribing to People Magazine. But if you’re missing your mortgage payment every month, you should not be subscribing to People Magazine. If you are, it’s a good indication that you just don’t seem to understand the problem.

We have to change the mindset, Mitch. So embrace this change with the right attitude. It’s time to return some dollars to the taxpayer.

If we take the lawmakers’ small entitlements, maybe they’ll get in the right frame of mind to take on our big entitlements.

All we can do is try.

37 Responses to “An Honest Question About Pork — Or, Why Pork Matters”

  1. McConnell’s argument is to falsely move the goalpost on the definition of an “earmark”.

    Most people define earmarks as appropriations that occur outside of the normal appropriation process, whereby a legislator denotes a sum of money for an exact program in a bill that is created outside of the appropriations committee process.

    Most of us just want Congress to put those expenditures in the normal appropriations process.

    McConnell is claiming that what is being banned is the ability of Congress to specify the exact expenditures project by project, giving the executive the power to decide what gets spent item by item. I think this is a dishonest claim on his part.

    SPQR (26be8b)

  2. If you are missing your mortgage payment every month, it’s probably not because you’re subscribing to People Magazine. But if you’re missing your mortgage payment every month, you should not be subscribing to People Magazine.

    That’s the whole argument in a nutshell, right there. And a handy analogy I’d save for future use when teeth are being gnashed and garments rended over cutting other expenditures that people felt a “rich county” like our should have been able to afford.

    My Regards

    Bob Reed (5f2db5)

  3. While earmarks are only a small part of a bill, it is akin to payoff, kickback, payola money. I ask a congressman how much does he need in order to support my bill, he comes in at maybe .05% of the total cost, voila, a huge money-taking bill is passed. And, it cost me nothing. And on his end, he might consider it leverage, but it matters not since his take is a minute amiunt.

    Come on — everyone knows how this works.

    John b (24cd3d)

  4. The other problem with pork is it encourages districts to keep electing complete idiots.
    When Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick finally lost her primary in Detroit, I remarked to my MIL in the Detroit suburbs what a good sign that was, that Detroit is finally getting serious.
    “The truth is,” my MIL said, “She had seniority and brought a lot of money home. She was good for Detroit.”

    I told her that if she looked at Detroit, it was obvious nobody in 30 years had really been good for Detroit.

    MayBee (b8f705)

  5. I think John b has it right.
    Most earmarks are bribes to congressmen to vote for the bill. It therefore doesn’t matter how small the earmark is as a fraction of the bill or in absolute terms; what matters is how effective the earmark is as a bribe, since they cause bills to be passed that otherwise wouldn’t be.

    LTEC (9175c7)

  6. Earmarks would be demonstratably bad if the bills were passed with these little nuggest had been approved and the total adjusted to take care of these perks. But generaly the earmarks don’t show up until the bill, the total already agreed upon, shows up in Appropriations. Then it becomes a zero sum game where money from one project that all the members voted for is reduced by earmarks.

    Pat Patterson (56dc55)

  7. Don’t eliminate earmarks.

    Make them responsible. Have one named sponsor and require a minimum number of co-sponsors. Require them to be individually proposed and debated. Require a statement of how they serve the public good and why the Federal Gov’t is authorized constitutionally to do them, such as was done centuries ago with the Sandy Hook lighthouse. That way only the most obviously justified earmarks would be approved and clear lines of responsibility would be drawn.

    Amphipolis (b120ce)

  8. First, Patrick, Michelle was serving a very important purpose for the U of Chicago Hospitals. She was a black woman who validated their plan of shifting the indigent from their expensive hospital to local community clinics that were paid for by somebody else. That was her role.

    The solution to the earmark problem is to go back to a serious appropriations process where the committee hold hearings and decides priorities. The number of hearings held in the past few years is about 10% of what was formerly the standard.

    Ideally, a member of Congress would have two avenues for getting funding for a favored project: encourage the beneficiary to submit a grant request to the relevant agency; or, go on the record and argue for funding before an authorizing committee. In this way, congressional hearings add transparency and accountability to the budget process. As a result of the authorizing committees not doing their job and the breakdown of enforcement mechanisms, almost all earmarks today are currently funded at the behest of individual
    members of the Appropriations Committees.

    Mike K (568408)

  9. Pat Patterson:

    All the commenters here decide to get pie, which will be paid for by the commenters from Ace of Spades. We agree that we Patterico commenters will carve up later and distribute it amongst ourselves. We’d better make sure to get enough pie to go around, huh?

    Now imagine that the pie will instead be carved up and shared by the commenters at a site you despise, like, say, Kos. Not sure I want to get as much pie now.

    Changing the mentality will change the amounts laid out in the aggregate. In fact, forcing Congress to turn over more control of spending to a hated executive could be seen as a very good thing indeed. Perhaps not by Congressmen … but certainly by the taxpayer.

    Patterico (ef9e86)

  10. OK, Cape Hatteras is a better example. Congress appropriated money for the construction of that one in 1797.

    Amphipolis (b120ce)

  11. Agree w/ John B and LTEC.

    Earmarks are just bribes to garner votes for legislation that wouldn’t pass on its own merits. Why should a lawmaker read and evaluate a huge budget-busting bill if he already knows he’s going to get three bike paths and a community center for his district out of the deal? In this way, though earmarks are a trivial amount in comparison to overall spending, they actually DO have a “multiplier effect”, possibly the only one in government. Every $1 in earmarks leads to $1,000 in deficit spending.

    cnh (02c1ca)

  12. “The idea that this approach is rejected out of hand — that any dollar not directed by Congress becomes a dollar directed by the President — seems to miss the entire point. Why can’t a dollar (or a million, or millions or billions) not directed by Congress be returned to the taxpayer?”

    Agencies have missions to carry out, and the executive follows broad instructions from congress in carrying these out. They do this with money allocated to them. Congress can specifically direct some priorities, but likely there is more that is demanded of them than they have budget for anyway, so removing one particular demand doesn’t necessarily mean they have a lower budget.

    Also, it means that putting in earmarks is “free” you don’t have to add to spending to put in a direction to an agency to spend already allocated money in some way.

    imdw (2ed357)

  13. Chalk up imdw as being a proponent of earmarks, and being an opponent of President Teh One.

    JD (82494b)

  14. Even if it were true, that the money would then just be spent by the executive – that might not be all bad. After all, we currently have earmarks to benefit the friends and relatives of all 450+ congresspeople. If it’s just the president, how many friends and relatives can one guy have?

    Sure, Michelle’s hospital would make out like bandits. But Murtha’s airport, and your second cousin’s post office, and your next door neighbor’s library, those kinds of things might at least get reduced just from the sheer difficulty of one guy coming up with them all.

    Of course, I suppose our President Santa has lots of elves who would do those things for him. …Never mind.

    Gesundheit (cfa313)

  15. “But Murtha’s airport, and your second cousin’s post office, and your next door neighbor’s library, those kinds of things might at least get reduced just from the sheer difficulty of one guy coming up with them all.”

    But note, a direction doesn’t have to be in legislation in order for it to have an effect (though for it to have force of law, it would have to be). If an agency wants to please an appropriator, they might build something in his district. Or they might ask him what sorts of things he thinks are important. These could be communicated in hearings, in committee reports, or simply in person. So a legislator that thinks that, say, the FCC should do more about expletives on TV could have hearings about this, could put this in committee reports, could write letters to the FCC, or could just tell this to the chairman, all without putting this into legislation. None of these methods are earmarks in legislation. If this legislator has power over the FCC, then he is likely to be listened to.

    imdw (53b665)

  16. Maybe, just maybe, earmarks could be done responsibly and for the overall public good.

    That has simply not been the case in practice.

    Instead, they have been a source for personal corruption and deficit aggravation. Both of those happen when a basically worthless project gets funded due to a bribe to a Member of Congress.

    Since the Congress has demonstrated that they can’t NOT abuse earmarks, that process should be terminated. Make them get campaign funds from sources based on their policies, instead of their seniority-enhanced porking.

    jim2 (a9ab88)

  17. Hoping this spirited fight over earmarks carries over to a steep cut across the board for everthing (yep including the military and homeland security)

    Remember the inverse of pricing, as less money becomes available – it also becomes more valuable

    EricPWJohnson (2a58f7)

  18. I’d like to see them go after the ag subsidies now. That is another 20 billion a year in savings.

    VOR2 (8e6b90)

  19. VOR2

    THere is a wide wide swath of cuts to be made but to put it to a debate, set the rules

    A cut is a cut is a cut

    One for all and all for one

    if its 10% then it applies to everything from Congressional retirements to Navy Fuel

    Social Security Checks and frisbee research

    This is what congress was intended to do by the 1776ish set – not get bogged down into endless federalism

    EricPWJohnson (2a58f7)

  20. Palin is stupid and dishonest and Murkowski should run for President !!!!!!!!!!!!,

    JD (82494b)

  21. I’d like to see these changes in legislative process enacted into law:

    1) Single-issue bills in Congress (thus obviating the whole “earmark” quid pro quo process); 2) Mandatory recorded votes on each bill; 3) Mandatory voting on each issue except in emergency; 4) (one I like least) Term limits.

    Will it happen? Nope, but man, it would sure give voters a clear understanding of their representatives’ views.


    dhmosquito (d2399f)

  22. I don’t like the way the bribery theory is called the “gateway-drug theory.” There’s a difference between gateway drugs and bribery.

    It would only be accurate if my using a gateway drug caused *someone else* to use more powerful drugs. But that’s never how it’s meant.

    So it’s not that earmarks are a “gateway drug,” per se. It’s that they facilitate other people spending a lot of money on projects that are bigger than the earmark itself. What should that phenomenon be called?

    wt (554c07)

  23. Comment by EricPWJohnson

    Ag subsidies help specific states. The feds need to get out of these kind of programs. If it is important to the citizens of a state the state reps should make the case to tax to raise money for subsidies. Why would someone in NM want to be supporting subsidies for tobacco farms in Ky for example?

    VOR2 (c9795e)

  24. VOR2

    You are right – it ould take YEARS to figure out an equitable formula to balance subsidies so just lets make cuts – eliminate where we can – but the main cuts would be easier to pass than targeted cuts – just due to regionalism

    EricPWJohnson (2a58f7)

  25. The only effect I can see from an earmark ban is a bill that allocates $100 billion with line item specifics (500 million on a new building, 600 million on new cars) will simply become “We authorize $100 billion in new spending”. Getting rid of earmarks to fight government waste is like getting rid of salty foods to fight obesity–proper discipline and control is more beneficial than an across-the-board ban. To control spending I would prefer starving the beast: a huge tax cut that forces the fed to give more power back to the states/local communities. You can’t spend money that you’re not going to get, right?

    Roger Membreno (dfa727)

  26. I don’t think I want to claim membership in the Smart People club you’re referencing, Patterico, but as I understand it, McConnell’s argument presumes that — and only makes any sense if — the earmarked appropriation was carved off of a more general appropriation.

    Hypothetical example: Congress is about to appropriate $3,010,000,000 to the Transportation Department, with no instructions to the Secretary of Transportation about how that money is to be spent, nor any specification of the projects to which he/she should allocate that $3.01B. Senator Snark thinks the Transportation Department should study mating habits of wild geese so that airports can play the appropriate noises over loudspeakers to reduce the number of air crashes due to geese being sucked into jet engines, so she proposes, and gets her colleagues’ acquiescence to, an earmark saying that from that $3.01B appropriation, $10 million should go to establish the Snavely Snark Center for Geese Sexuality in at Sen. Snark’s alma mater in her home state. The Secretary of Transportation still ends up spending exactly $3.01B that year, but no longer can claim to have lacked adequate funding to pursue the Senator’s favored project.

    The problem with the hypothetical is that it doesn’t match our real-world budgeting and spending process. In the real world, the appropriations bill is for $3.00B, and Sen. Snark persuades her comrades that in order to accommodate her tiny little $10M earmark, the amount appropriated should be changed to $3.01B. And then, of course, Sen. Bumwhistle says, “Sure enough, Snavely, I’ll go along with your geese-f*cking program if you’ll go along with my $10 million earmark for a new passenger terminal at my home-state airport, and we’ll just bump the bill up to $3.02B.”

    The problem isn’t earmarking per se, it’s that Congress spends without much regard (other than for political finger-pointing during election season) to how much revenue is coming in.

    Beldar (7aa6f6)

  27. Put another way: Sen. McConnell’s argument presumes that Congress has a fixed amount to spend, and that earmarks won’t change that amount, but rather will only affect the degree to which Congress is specific about how executive agencies ought to spend that fixed amount of money.

    The presumption should be true. But it isn’t.

    Beldar (7aa6f6)

  28. This observation (#27 above) leads inexorably to the conclusion that banning earmarks won’t, by itself, stop or even necessarily limit government overspending. To the extent the earmarks were “legitimate” (i.e., within Sen. McConnell’s [false] paradigm, i.e., wouldn’t lead to more overall spending but just a redistribution of a fixed amount of spending), then doing away with them won’t reduce overall spending. To the extent that they’re “illegitimate” (i.e., pork that’s above and beyond what would have been appropriated and spent anyway), they may tend to limit overspending, but only if members of Congress are too stupid to find other ways for graft. And they’re not that stupid.

    Banning earmarks is important. But it’s mostly symbolic, and it is barely a start when it comes to curing Congress over-spending problems.

    Beldar (7aa6f6)

  29. Any argument against the earmark prohibition misses a key fact: a ban on earmarks will yield to the Republican majority a large amount of political capital in the form of credibility as a party serious about cutting the deficit. This will actually make the difficult cuts (Medicare, Social Security) easier, not harder.

    The Republicans have to be perceived as being willing to gore their own ox for any useful work on entitlements to get done. If they’re seen as unwilling to touch their own pet projects, no one will believe they are sincere when they say, for example, that the age of retirement must be increased (even slowly).

    cnh (02c1ca)

  30. The GOP won’t allow a single earmark to be passed in the next two years. At least they won’t call them earmarks.

    JEA (2a1ff2)

  31. “…A cut is a cut is a cut…”

    That would require repeal of the Base-Line Budgeting Act(sic) of IIRC 1975.

    Base-line budgeting assumes that all programs will increase year-to-year by a proscribed percentage amount, sort of a built-in COLA for the bureaucracy.

    In fact, if Congress is serious about reducing the size and scope of the Leviathan, they MUST repeal Base-Line Budgeting, and allow the President to resume “rescission”.

    AD-RtR/OS! (ba1e7c)

  32. I’d like to see them go after the ag subsidies now.

    Amen, and they can start by elminating the ethanol subsidy, which is one of the most egregious cases of gov’t/corporate log – rolling in decades. Senator Dole was Mr. Ethanol, helping to make ADM the huge conglomerate they are at present, while no one seemed to notice the terrible energy ratio involved in converting corn into ethanol fuel.

    Dmac (498ece)

  33. IMHO this is one of your best posts although you’ve had many good ones.

    Earmarks are nothing but vote buying…if they were really valuable projects, the states would be doing them, including building lighthouses.

    I have no problem with Fed giving the States Block Grants (don’t reduce the spending at all because it really is a “pee hole in the snow”) that are then authorized by the GOvernors/legislature. Makes the money more local and more accountable…also would get hte local papers involved in more oversight.

    GoDad (6ed79d)

  34. “Earmarks are nothing but vote buying…if they were really valuable projects, the states would be doing them, including building lighthouses. ”

    Michelle Bachman explains why getting transporation projects in her state is not “earmarks.”:

    “Advocating for transportation projects for one’s district in my mind does not equate to an earmark,” Bachmann told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune yesterday. “I don’t believe that building roads and bridges and interchanges should be considered an earmark,” Bachmann continued.

    imdw (e66706)

  35. So there are three types of earmarks.
    1. Bribes to legislators to secure their votes. (Vote yes and we’ll spend 100mil in your district)
    2. Legislative oversight on appropriations bills. (I agree to fund the CDC but they’ve got to spend 50 Mil cancer/aids/whatever)
    3. Both 1 & 2 at the same time. (We’re going to spend 100 million on roads and we’ve worked out exactly how much money will go to each district.)

    Say that we eliminate earmarks. Not allowed. They won’t ever be done again. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that 1,2, and 3 just happen offline. They’re not in the legislative language but the executive branch makes the agreements on a handshake. This might make congress a little less powerful, or it might not. But I don’t see how eliminating what is basically an accounting trick will make any difference in total dollars spent.

    Also, I’ll be surprised if the definition of ‘earmark’ isn’t changed with the new congress so that it no longer applies to ‘good’ spending, like bridges in my district. If that doesn’t work I’ll expect to see “appropriations guidance/congressional spending directive/whatever used in its place.”

    time (5250bd)

  36. Wouldn’t appropriation guidance and congressional directive imply that it was done out in the open, in a public and transparent manner, with opportunity for discussion and debate?

    JD (560680)

  37. I’m sure it would imply those things. But that doesn’t mean those things would happen.

    “Well, we all agreed that interstate highways needed to be upgraded. Infrastructure is important to commerce. But we wanted to make sure that none of the money was wasted on earmark type activity. So we sat down and compiled a guidance list on the appropriations. Now the white house can’t spend the money however they please and waste it. We’ve ensured that every dollar is well spent.”

    time (5250bd)

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