For the sake of the deficit, should we stop hating on pork?

16 Jan

Pork is (or once was) the political currency of congressional transactions (a process called “logrolling” by scholars).  It was the means by which things get done in Congress.  But pork-barreling has fell into disrepute politically in recent years.  Both Obama and both GOP challengers in 2008 and 2012 chided the practice.  It seems reasonable at first blush, given the deficit and debt situation.  But some political scientists point out that without pork, congressman may have little incentive to work together to accomplish major deficit/debt reducing things, like entitlement reform.  From the Monkey Cage:

Many people complain about pork barrel spending, but pork adapts national programs to local conditions, and provides the grease that lubricates deal-making. Efforts to eliminate pork can actually make Congress less effective as a policy-making institution. In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, political scientist Sean Kelly, coauthor of Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks Are Good for American Democracyis reported to have found that Congress’s recent ban on earmarking has reduced the incentive of pragmatic members to serve on the appropriations committees since there are fewer goodies to hand out. Just last month, Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) declined an opportunity to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee. News reports speculated that Leahy’s decision may have reflected new restrictions on the Committee’s ability to approve “special projects requested by lawmakers.”

Some insist that we can’t afford pork at a time when Congress is struggling to reduce the budget deficit. But pet projects are cheap, and if doled out strategically, they provide an efficient way for presidents and congressional leaders to build coalitions for broad-based national legislation, as Trinity College political scientist Diana Evans shows in her fine book Greasing the Wheels.

If Congress is ever going to pass a grand bargain that trims entitlements and raises taxes (pain for everyone), shouldn’t we give lawmakers something positive to vote for? Of course we don’t want to return to the days of outright bribery and graft. As Matthew Yglasias writes in Slate, however, the current dysfunctional Congress makes it “hard not to miss a little old-fashioned earmarking and pork.” Sure it would be nice if lawmakers didn’t need to be given side payments to vote for general-interest legislation, but that’s not the American way. As John W. Ellwood and I wrote in our 1993 essay In Praise of Pork, “Favoring legislators with small gifts for their districts in order to achieve great things for the nation is an act not of sin but of statesmanship.”

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