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In Defense of Pork

By Jay Cost

Many conservatives thought last month's selection of John Boehner as House Majority Leader was a sign that the Republican caucus is prepared to change its spending habits. Though most in the conservative crowd preferred John Shadegg, Boehner's promise to hold the line on "earmarks" satisfied many conservatives that the vote was a step in the right direction. However, restraining discretionary spending has been, since the election of Reagan, a "one step forward, two steps back" sort of progress for the GOP. Despite their allegiance to the principle of limited government, Republicans members have never changed how Congress spends money.

Why have congressional Republicans - despite their ostensible desire to reduce the size of the discretionary budget as well as their ten-year control of the House - failed so miserably? If you consider the string of Republican legislative accomplishments that date back to the Clinton Administration, from tax cuts to welfare reform, this failure is quite a puzzle. Most in the pundit class have found somebody or something to blame for Republican ineptitude, but few identify the true reasons. As I will argue presently, the issue is not simply a weakness of Republican will. Nor, for that matter, is it due to being co-opted by the "Washington establishment". It is not Bush's fault. It is not DeLay's fault. It is not Reagan's fault. Republicans in Congress continue to waste money for much deeper reasons - that get to the very heart of the American political system.

The first mistake that conservatives make when they criticize the congressional GOP is the assumption that congressional Republicans are Republican in the same way that they are. It is not true. A half-century ago, the great Harvard political scientist V.O. Key argued that a political party must be understood as the conglomeration of three distinct parts - the party organization, the party-in-government, and the party-in-the-electorate. All three parts have different, sometimes competing, interests. Today's party-in-the-electorate - the base, the party intellectuals, the donors - want above all to have the party platform enacted. The Republican party-in-government - President Bush as well as the Republican congressional caucus - also wish that. However, they desire something more than the implementation of Republicanism - and that is their reelection. Long gone are the days of the citizen legislature that the Framers envisioned for the Congress. Congress is now composed of professional legislators - who, once they have secured office, intend to keep it indefinitely. This is their primary goal. It is a goal that the party-in-the-electorate does not share. Voters in the Republican electorate have no personal offices that they need to preserve.

The preeminence of reelection in the mind of the legislator is something that most pundits accept, but fail to appreciate. To understand members of Congress, the priority of reelection is an absolute, positive, unequivocal first principle. This is not to say that members of Congress do not care about good policy; it is only to say that good policy comes second to reelection. Members pursue good policy only when they think that it will not diminish their chances in the next election. So, when it comes to "Republican congressmen", you cannot separate the first word from the second. They are Republicans, but they are not Republicans like the party faithful. They have different goals: reelection first, Republicanism second.

This is not intended to be a moral critique of members of Congress. In their defense, we should say that reelection is the necessary condition for any policy goal they might have. No reelection, no policy agenda. Thus, this is not a criticism of Democrats who "sell out" their liberal agenda by cozying up to big business or Republicans who "sell out" their conservative agenda by wasting discretionary funds. They are doing what they have to do to secure reelection, which is the first step to achieving any of their ideological goals.

If reelection is the principal goal, what strategies must a member adopt to achieve it? Recall our previous examination of how congressional elections actually work. While party turnover in Congress tends to move according to national trends, members of Congress win or lose votes depending upon what their constituents think of them. The average voter, in the course of making his vote choice, does not ponder the extent to which the selection of a Republican will extend Republicanism; rather, he evaluates what he thinks of the member personally and what he has done for that district. This view is due to the design of the system. Congress was not designed to efficiently advance the national welfare. It was designed to efficiently represent and balance local interests. That is what it does, and that is how voters think about it when they make their vote choice. One should not criticize the average voter for thinking locally when voting for Congress. He is playing his role just as Madison and the Framers intended it.

Thus, because of constitutional issues, reelection is a local affair. This is why members of Congress focus so extensively on casework. Caseworking is a way to win votes. If a member helps nudge the Social Security Administration to more quickly process a disability claim, that member has probably won himself a lifetime voter. Acquiring voters is also why members waste so much money on the discretionary side of spending. It "buys" members of Congress votes - not by paying individuals off (though often businesses do indeed get paid off - just ask Ross Perot!), but rather by giving the impression to the folks back home that the member is working for them. This is the root cause of wasteful discretionary spending. It is not wasteful in the strictest sense of the word. It is doing something - it helps ensure reelection. A better word than "waste" is "irresponsible". Pork barrel spending is irresponsible. It does nothing to enhance the public good.

Take an example. Why did Shelly Moore Capito decide not to run against the 88-year old Robert Byrd in West Virginia, a state that, by many measures, is one of the most conservative in America? There are a number of reasons, and you can see a good many of them on the drive down I-79 from Morgantown to Charleston. His name is on every third road sign. This is a symbol of Byrd's extensive work for the state. Ask the average West Virginian Bush voter what he thinks of Byrd, and he will tell you that Robert Byrd is good for West Virginia. He cares about West Virginians and he is doing what he can to help them - the proof is in the pork. Byrd is a Democrat, but this logic transcends party lines. And its pull is more powerful than any member's desire to limit the size and scope of the federal government: limiting government requires members to be in government, which in turn requires them to expand government.

At the end of the day, then, the Republican inability to control discretionary spending is due to a few fundamental reasons: the way Congress was designed, and how voters respond to that design; the fact that politicians are careerists; and the power of Congress to spend money. It is not because of a dearth of Republican mettle, not because DeLay Republicans have overwhelmed Gingrich Republicans, not because of co-optation by the Washington establishment, not because of K Street coziness. It is because of several basic, long-lasting features of American political life.

For his part, Newt Gingrich recognized that irresponsible spending was a problem that extended this deep. The Contract with America included three provisions - term limits, line item veto and the balanced budget amendment -- designed to control spending by changing some of these fundamentals. Unfortunately, all three of them were incredibly bad ideas. All three would have drastically diminished the power of Congress. Term limits, while it would have changed the careerist bent of the Congress, would also have diminished the policy expertise within the body, as members would not be able to stay long enough to develop deep knowledge of certain policy areas. Ultimately, Congress would be able to oversee the executive bureaucracy less effectively, and thus the executive branch would greatly increase its power. The line-item veto and the balanced budget amendment would both have limited Congress's institutional ability to control the purse, but they would have done so by bringing the executive and judicial branches into decisions that have, for centuries and by original design, been the prerogative of Congress.

All three of these proposals failed, and so the institutions that cause discretionary spending remained unchanged, and so Congress kept passing larger and larger spending bills. The fact that Congress was almost always controlled by Republicans was irrelevant - Republican members of Congress are, from the grass root's perspective, members of Congress first and Republicans second. Or, from Key's perspective, they are a different type of Republican. Ideology, for them, comes second.

This is why I think any proposal to eliminate earmarks will, ultimately, be nothing more than a red herring. Republicans, if they manage to end earmarks, will come home to their districts, declare victory in the war against runaway discretionary spending, and then proceed to find a new way to spend money to ensure reelection. One of the reasons earmarks became so popular was because they were a low-publicity way to dispense particularistic spending. Now that the cover has been blown on earmarks, members will probably find a new legislative trick to hide from public view their spending habits.

Boehner, or any congressional leader for that matter, does not have the ability to stop this sort of spending. If the first argument of this column is that members of Congress are members first and partisans second, the second is that congressional leadership is not nearly as strong as most pundits assume. Unlike European party leaders, American leaders do not have coercive power over their members. As Duke's John Aldrich and Michigan State's David Rohde have argued, the strength of the party leadership is conditional - it depends upon the cohesiveness of the party caucus. Party leaders are able to enact the caucuses' will; they are not able to impose their own will on the caucus. This is why the congressional parties have become more powerful in the last two decades: the party caucuses have become more ideologically unified, they have come to a broader and deeper consensus about policy, and they have empowered their leaders to achieve their policy goals. When it comes to particularistic discretionary spending, what is the consensus in the Republican caucus? It is that it is a necessary ingredient for reelection, and that any alterations to the logrolling system are strictly verboten.

If you want to stop members of Congress from spending like drunken sailors, you cannot presume that leaders full of tough talk will not do anything except make people feel better. Cosmetic changes like this are not sufficient for change. You will have to get your hands dirty and start changing the way the system itself works. Limit the powers of Congress, stop members from returning to it, or change the local nature of the body. The first two seem obviously bad to me. The third implies major changes in the role of Congress in America. Is stopping pork barrel spending really worth such deep alterations? Is the "Bridge to Nowhere" really so noxious that we have to change the way our system works? I tend to think that the answer is no. After all, Congress was never meant to be a body that represented the interests of the nation as a whole. It was meant to be a meeting of the representatives of the different parts of the nation. Should we be surprised that it spends money in ways that benefit the parts but not the whole? Should we tinker around with the Madisonian system to change this? That does not seem very conservative to me.

So, as the title indicates, I am to be counted as one of the few defenders of pork. Is it a good in itself? No, of course not. It is, however, a consequence, an unfortunate side effect, of an otherwise very excellent system of government. As getting rid of pork requires one to tinker around with the system, I prefer pork.

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