Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"Washington is like 'the Godfather'"

It has been said that the process of making legislation is like the process of making sausage: you don’t want to see either one. But liberty relies on an informed public. Thus, it is essential for Americans to understand how laws are made, despite the unpleasantness. I’m not talking about the School House Rock version, but the way it happens in real life.

Former Bush II speechwriter William McGurn provides an interesting view into the legislative process in this article. Pork and earmarking make for bad legislation. But it is pork and earmarking that enable legislation to pass. The uglier a bill is (i.e. the more earmarks and pork it has), the more likely it is to pass, explains McGurn.

When a legislator adds an earmark or pork to a bill, the legislator has an incentive to see the bill become law. The more legislators that add personally desired projects to a bill, the uglier the bill becomes, but also, the more likely it is to pass. Having added such projects to a bill, a legislator is in no position to denigrate another legislator’s add-ons.

McGurn notes that such legislators may even duplicitously vote against the legislation if enough other votes exist to ensure passage, so that the legislator can wear a mask of fiscal conservatism for the folks back home.

The Chief Executive has little incentive to rein in the legislature. Doing so might anger a legislator whose vote may be crucial on some future piece of legislation. Besides, by allowing legislators to pork up a bill, the executive gets to add plenty of provisions of personal interest as well.

The problem is that this type of horse trading — agreeing to look the other way while the other guy adds lard to a bill — ill serves the American public, regardless of what Senator Bennett says. Almost nobody in Washington actually believes William Weld’s maxim that “there is no such thing as government money, there is only taxpayer's money.”

Before anyone engages in partisan ranting on this issue, McGurn is quick to remind us that both parties are deeply steeped in the larding practice. Writing about the current hideous $410 billion spending bill signed today by the President, he says that “though Democrats account for about 60% of the earmarks in the omnibus, six of its top 10 Senate earmarkers are Republican ….” He also reminds of the GOP’s 2005 earmarking profligacy that was partly to blame for voters turning against the GOP in 2006.

There would not be nearly as much of this kind of gaming going on with your money if Washington didn’t have such sprawling powers as it now does. If the general welfare clause of the Constitution were not so broadly interpreted, politicians would have no fig leaf with which to cover most of the spending done under the government rubric. As it is, there is no logical limit to what government is permitted to do or spend.

A healthy understanding of the current repulsive state of legislative gamesmanship should temper any ascription of altruism to any piece of legislation coming out of Washington.

During the Constitutional Convention, John Rutledge argued against any proscription against slavery, saying (in Madison’s words) that “Religion & humanity had nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations.” Rutledge was condemned for his position. But in essence, this is the state of our government today.

With apparently limitless funds at play and no real connection between the taxpayer and the money allocated by government, we should not be surprised when self interested people come out of the woodwork to seek a piece of the expansive pie continually being divided up by our politicians.

Finally, McGurn quotes Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Explaining the larding process in legislation, Ellis says, “Washington is like ‘the Godfather.’ The earmarks are favors from the Don. And once you've asked for his help, you're in it together -- whether you want to be or not.”

Senator Bennett is right in noting that earmarks only make up a small fraction of federal spending. But the process of earmarking leads to much larger spending and bad legislation. Earmarks are representative of what is wrong with the Washington, D.C. political establishment.

Moreover, this effect insidiously flows down to poison state, county, and municipal governments. All of us are co-opted and have become reliant on kissing the rings of Washington power brokers to ensure new or continued funding for our interests. These things ought not so to be (James 3:10).

1 comment:

Charles D said...

Two observations. In 2008, earmarks totaled $18 billion out of $1.2 trillion dollars of expenditures. That's about 1.5% of the total. Seems to me they are getting a bit too much attention.

Second, let's look at the biggest way the federal budget is gamed - "defense" spending. Every new weapons system is carefully sub-contracted so that there are hundreds of jobs in all the key Congressional districts. When the Pentagon says it doesn't need any more fighters or helicopters or whatever, Congress puts the money back in the budget because if they don't, several hundred of their constituents will lose their jobs.

Seems to me that is the biggest waste of taxpayer dollars, but we don't hear much about it.