First thoughts


One can begin anywhere, but let’s start with this thoughtful critique from Don Surber of Porkbusters, the online effort to identify and protest wasteful federal spending. Surber has two main objections, the first being (and I’m paraphrasing), that pork is sometimes good policy (a theme he elaborates on here), and the second, that such efforts amount to pin pricks:

What’s that, Porkbusters found $23 billion in questionable spending? That is less than 1% of a $2.7 trillion budget.

Though I agree with much of Surber’s analysis, I disagree with his conclusion that attempting to hold up a bright light to the particulars of what Congress is actually doing is futile. First, I think we need to adopt a broken windows approach to Congress. By raising the costs of "petty" bad acts by Senators or Representatives (i.e., those involving spending trivial amounts of money–mere millions of dollars), we create a climate conducive to ensuring accountability and responsibility on the big issues as well.

All of which raises another question in my mind. The federal government spends some $2.7 trillion, while state and local governments combine to spend more than $2.1 trillion (that latter figure, from 2002, is the most recent available I could find). Exactly how fastidious do we think our elected representatives are being with the public purse? The only way to find out, I think, is for us as citizens to go behind the budget numbers that Surber cites — the tens or hundreds of billions in spending for agriculture, labor, health and human services and defense. The only way we can determine whether we are getting sufficient bang (or broom, as the case may be) for the buck is to muck around in the line items, and to look at how (and why) Congress spends our money. And that will take more of an investment of resources than any one blogger–or one news organization, for that matter–can muster; that will require a broad-based effort on the part of constituents to be the watchdogs of their own members.

Invariably, there will be occasions when pork is good policy. There will be times when it’s either neutral or perhaps even bad policy, but nonetheless popular: Members of Congress would not send out press releases hailing their bacon -securing abilities (to cite just one example) if they thought doing so would hurt them with voters. (I picked on Jim Moran, by the way, because he’s my representative, and I should add that I don’t mean to draw any conclusions about the projects Moran touts–my intention was only to note that securing cash for the district is a time-honored occupation of members of Congress). But without scrutiny–especially when members have wide discretion through earmarks to steer appropriations to projects and even private companies of their choosing–there’s not a great deal of incentive for members to restrain themselves.

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