TCS Daily

Who You Gonna Call?

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - September 27, 2005 12:00 AM

In response to the massive costs associated with the post-Katrina recovery effort, the Blogosphere has started the Porkbusters campaign to get rid of excess government waste. The linked webpage allows for viewers to learn more about the campaign, track the responses of their own Representatives in Congress and keep track of pork-barrel spending on a per state basis. The campaign is getting attention in high places.

The question, of course, is whether all of this attention will amount to anything. It's too soon to tell for sure, but I think there is a way to cause it to catch on -- if we celebrate even small victories.

The Nature of the Problem

Though the second update to his post is optimistic about cutting pork, political science professor and blogger Daniel Drezner points out that "quasi-public goods" may be "grotesque and incomprehensible" in the abstract, but "mighty tasty" when the question comes down to pork that enriches one's own district or state. Therein rests the problem.

For one thing, it should be emphasized that the Porkbusters campaign will not change national attitudes towards pork overnight. Leading the public to a point where individual constituencies are more likely than not to oppose even pork that benefits them will take time. As such, while small-government advocates may work and fight for 100% of their goals to be achieved at the onset of the Porkbusters campaign, they may have to settle for achieving only 30% of their goals in the near term.

But that is not the end of the process. It may be that only 30% of the items on the Porkbusters wishlist will be cut in, say, the first fiscal year after the Porkbusters campaign begins. That does not preclude another 30% or so being cut the next year. And the year after that as well. And so on.

Changing the Culture

Changing the entitlement culture is an incremental process. But eventually, the small gains can add up and we can achieve a budgetary process that is more fiscally responsible than the one we are currently saddled with. Recognizing this fact will go a long way towards fashioning a successful anti-pork political strategy. And it is not like the political facts on the ground don't make it easy to cut pork. As Professor Drezner notes in his second update, the Bush Administration has certainly done a great deal to increase the size and scope of non-defense discretionary spending (more on this issue can be found in this article). It is hard to believe that such a massive spending increase does not contain pork that can and should be cut and that those who are responsible for the federal budget process cannot take a meat cleaver to the budget to rid it of excess spending.

Indeed, we certainly do not lack candidates for budget cutting. The ever-unpopular Amtrak is a good target. The gigantic Medicare drug prescription plan is a prime candidate as well. So is the recently passed federal highway bill. It's worth remembering that pork-barrel spending helped divert much-needed funds that could have been used to keep New Orleans unflooded to projects entirely unrelated to flood control or hurricane relief operations. Cutting pork-barrel spending isn't just sound fiscal policy. It saves lives as well. Stressing the very tangible benefits of a sound fiscal policy -- benefits that go beyond what much of the populace might simply consider good accounting -- will ultimately help bring about a sound fiscal policy.

Washington has traditionally talked a good game when it comes to porkbusting but has failed to follow through on a depressingly regular basis. But now, the need to pay for the rebuilding of New Orleans in the post-Katrina world -- and the Blogosphere's sudden and focused attention on the problem of pork -- appears to have concentrated minds, at least for the moment. Whether that moment grows into a genuine and effective national movement or whether it simply passes into oblivion is an unsettled question. But while we may not know whether porkbusting will be done, there is a way for it to be done in a serious and comprehensive manner. Any failure to put an end to wasteful and excessive spending should not be attributed to the implausibility of the policy objective, but rather to the irresponsibility of the leadership class.

And elections are supposed to do something about the latter problem, aren't they?

The author is a lawyer and TCS contributor. Find more of his writing here.

To see more of the extensive coverage of the 2005 Hurricane Season from TCS, click here.



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