Rep. John Boehner has a piece on why House Republicans need to go on a ‘low pork diet’. It seems as though the GOP members of the House are finally getting the message that spending like Democrats doesn’t exactly endear them to their own base. Boehner observes:
We must start by addressing the growing practice of unauthorized earmarks–language in spending bills that directs federal dollars to private entities for projects that are not tied to an existing federal program or purpose. The public knows the practice better by a different name–pork-barreling. Unauthorized earmarks squander taxpayer dollars and lack transparency. They feed public cynicism. They’ve been a driving force in the ongoing growth of our already gargantuan federal government, and a major factor in government’s increasing detachment from the priorities of individual Americans. Earmarks have also fueled the growth of the lobbying industry. Entire firms have been built around the practice. As more entities circumvent the normal competitive process, confidence in the system erodes, encouraging others to take the same shortcuts.
The explosive growth of earmarks have caused spending to skyrocket in recent years – and getting rid of earmarks is an important first step in cutting back on the explosive growth of government spending. Congresscritters can easily throw in a few earmarks to keep the pork rolling in with relative impunity – and while projects like Porkbusters help expose this wasteful spending, it’s still rampant and is likely to be until the political culture in Washington changes.
And therein lies the problem: we have a political culture in Washington that has gone off the rails. Government has expanded dramatically in the post-World War II period. The power, size, scope, and intrusiveness of government grows year after year, and the freedoms of the American people keep receding in its wake. This trend is unsustainable – the strength of this country isn’t found in the size and scope of its government but in the ability of its people to translate their genius and effort into something that can expand and refine our economy and society.
In other words, if you’re a liberal, think of government as a massive honking SUV, like the results of a drunken tryst between a Ford Excursion and a Hummer H2. It does do some good, but it belches out smoke, gets 1 mile to the gallon (on a good day), requires it’s own gas tanker, pushes other cars off the road when it passes, and keeps getting bigger and more inefficient.
Ultimately, fighting pork is like putting that monster SUV on cleaner gas. Yes, it runs a little better, but that doesn’t necessarily shrink its size. Ultimately we’re still stuck with a behemoth that takes up every lane on the highway.
Congress can and should get serious about pork. Boehner and Shadegg are serious anti-pork crusaders – because they know that’s the sort of thing that will keep them in office, and there isn’t a greater power in the ‘verse that acts on Congress than electoral self-interest. Even Blunt is being dragged kicking and screaming into the world of fighting pork. The fact that House Republicans are talking reform says that they have some electoral interest in doing so, and that’s a good thing.
Boehner also pledges to reform the lobbyist system, which seems like a given with the Abramoff scandal in full swing. However, making it harder for diverse interest groups to petition Congress won’t necessarily help – the right to petition government is enshrined in our Constitution, and every time Congress tries to limit political speech, it just makes things worse. Remember how McCain-Feingold was supposed to clean up elections? Well, after millions of dollars were poured into MoveOn.org, Media Matters, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, etc., 2004 was one of the dirtiest and most vitriolic campaigns ever – at least when messages are coming from candidates they have some inclination towards keeping things clean. It’s easy to see lobbyists as convenient scapegoats, and lobbying reform will likely be a hot topic in Congress in the next few months.
But ultimately, if the voters stop caring about pork – and I’m looking at you, fellow Republicans – then the same old business as usual culture will quickly return. Washington has always been a fetid swamp, and the fact that we’ve built some nice marble façades over it doesn’t change what it is. It’s up to us to demand responsibility, accountability, and remind our Congresscritters that we have a limited government for a reason.
As P.J. O’Rourke wrote over a decade ago, Washington D.C. often resembles A Parliament of Whores – and unfortunately, we’re the whores. So long as we demand more and more government, that’s precisely what we’ll get. House Republicans need to get serious about reducing the size and intrusiveness of government – and so should we.