Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Centrists Against Political Pork

In the current online New Republic, Bradford Plumer makes the liberal case for pork-barrel spending, for special earmarks in federal spending bills designed to pay off particular legislators and their districts. Plumer says that pork is necessary for "activist government." If some legislators weren't bribed with special spending in their districts, they wouldn't vote for good laws. He cites as examples Reagan's tax cut in 1986, and Clinton's tax hike in '93. I think the Reagan tax cut is a somewhat peculiar example of "progressive legislation" and if there hadn't been so many payoffs in '86, it wouldn't have been necessary to pass budget-balancing tax hikes seven years later.

Still, Plumer's larger point is that "Any big-government program on the progressive wish list … won't get done without an orgy of earmarks to entice the inevitable skeptics in Congress. That won't be pretty, but if the price of, say, universal insurance is a bit of borderline corruption here and there, it's a tradeoff worth making. " Plumer notes the obvious sauce-for-the-gander objection – that conservatives can use earmarks to pass their own bills; nonetheless, he believes that "in the long run, institutional mechanisms that are biased toward activist government will favor liberals."

I think this is a point at which centrists part company with ideologues on both extremes. Corruption corrupts. Short-term gains do not justify the long-term erosion of good government or faith in government.

Centrists are typically loyal to the existing institutions of society more than they are tied to a theoretical ideology. Loyalists to our democracy know that Congress has always had some corruption, both of the pork-barrel kind and the Duke Cunningham bribery kind. Our loyalty to our government, though, is despite the bad way it sometimes works, not because of it. Our larger loyalty is to the long-term viability of Congress, beyond the issues, personalities, or even parties of any given term.

The long-term effect of pork on Congress is trichinosis.

1 comment:

Stuart Gordon said...

It is a sad aspect of life among people who work inside the beltway: they live in trenches in which they see only the enemy to be conquered on their way to hegemony, instead of the mess they are making of the landscape. I say this as someone who has friends who've worked in Washington a long time, and who has watched it happen.

I don't know how we get out of this, other than the usual means: engagement, discourse, and voting. Unfortunately, the cost of elections now means that even those means hardly carry the power they used to.

It's hard not to be cynical.