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Status Quo Election?

By Bruce Bartlett

It appears that congressional Republicans have dodged a bullet. If the election had been held six weeks ago, almost certainly they would have lost control of the House of Representatives and probably the Senate, as well. Since then, they have narrowed the gap with the Democrats to where it is starting to look like a status quo election in November, with no significant changes.

According to the Real Clear Politics Website, during the first week in August, Republicans were down by double digits in almost every generic congressional poll. In such a poll, voters are not asked about specific races, but only about whether they plan to vote Republican or Democratic. Both Fox News and The Associated Press had the Republicans down by 18 percent.

Fast forward to the latest polls, and there has been a steady improvement. The average spread is down to 9.5 percent, with Fox News showing only a 3 percent advantage for the Democrats. With gasoline prices dropping sharply, President Bush effectively playing the terrorism card yet again and continuing disarray on the Democratic side, it no longer looks as if this will be a defining election, as 1994 was.

I think this is too bad. The Republicans badly need a wake-up call. They have completely broken faith with the voters who put them in power 12 years ago and become indistinguishable from the Democrats they replaced on many issues. Does anyone believe we would have more pork barrel spending if the Democrats were still in control? I seriously doubt it.

Knowing that they are vulnerable on this issue, Republicans have responded by setting up some half-baked computer system that will supposedly allow citizens to identify individual sponsors of pork. Theoretically, they will then be able to pressure their representatives to show fiscal responsibility.

In my experience, the proliferation of pork barrel spending has very little to do with the anonymity of its sponsors. Indeed, what would be the point of pork barrel spending if its sponsors couldn't take credit for it? It would serve no political purpose. After all, the whole idea of such spending is to buy votes with it. And although voters may be appalled by things like the "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, there is no evidence that those who live where such things are built ever protest them. On the contrary, they consistently re-elect those congressmen and senators who "bring home the bacon."

Therefore, the problem isn't a lack of transparency, but the fact that people like other people to pay for public works that they benefit from. Who doesn't like something for nothing?

Even if it turns out that there is some political downside for pork supporters once this database is online, it will be a very easy matter to disguise the sponsors. Committee chairmen, for example, could simply become the sponsors of record for all public works projects within their committee's jurisdiction. Or members of Congress will simply work harder to get the administration to support their projects and include them in its budget request.

In fact, one of the dirty secrets about pork barrel spending is how much the administration -- every administration -- hides in its budget. It is simply assumed that it is looking out for the national interest, whereas members of Congress are concerned only with their parochial interests. But presidents run for re-election, too, and are not shy about making promises of public works in battleground states.

Members of Congress rightly complain about this double standard. Presidents are seldom criticized when they use pork for political purposes, but members of Congress are berated whenever they do. Of course, wasteful spending is deplorable, but all so-called pork barrel spending added together only comes to about 1 percent of the budget. And the abolition of pork probably wouldn't even cut the budget by that amount. The money would still be spent, only in different ways.

This is one reason why President Bush's proposed solution to the pork barrel problem -- the line item veto -- is a paper tiger. Studies at the state level, where 43 governors have such authority, show that it only changes the allocation of spending, not the amount. The governor's priorities are simply substituted for the legislature's.

In any case, the problem of spending is not with programs subject to annual appropriations, but those where spending is automatic, known as entitlements. The real spending problem is in Medicare, which neither party has the guts to tackle. By comparison, all pork barrel spending plus every other case of waste, fraud and abuse taken together are a budgetary triviality compared to the problem of Medicare.

If Republicans end up losing in November, it should not be because they are gluttons for pork, but because they enacted a massively expensive, unfunded expansion of Medicare for prescription drugs.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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