Monday, August 08, 2005

Must. Love. Pork.

Jane Norman, did a little political dissection on the new highway bill sailing down to the President’s desk. It’s big, 286.4 billion out the treasury door to build, pave, employ, implode, bits and pieces of infrastructure all across America over the next five years. Of course, through the more creative budget processes, some states are gettin' a little more pavement.

Most of Norman’s column focuses on something called the “Earmarks” or, more correctly, the noncompetitive pork that will dole out to Congressional districts with powerful or clever Congressional members. The powerful Congressional types work the system for themselves and their friends.

And being a friend in Washington has everything to do with back scratching, ‘ego’stroking, log rolling, and vote delivery, whatever it takes to get important people to buy into the deal. It works out great (that is if you can mentally block out future pictures of your tax bill post boomer cohort retirement) that Iowans get to consume some of that fed-style pork. And we get to that pork-laden table through the simple fact that we have Senate and House members with seniority. Jane talks about what that seniority can produce:

Admittedly, Iowa came out smelling pretty. That usually happens because our guys are well versed in how to work the system. Thanks to Boswell, the state's two senators, Rep. Jim Nussle and other members of the delegation, Iowa wound up with 149 earmarks with a value of $415 million, according to calculations by the group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

That ranked Iowa No. 22 in the nation in terms of total dollar amounts of earmarks, and 16th in per capita earmarks.


Are highway earmarks bad? Everyone will find some merit in his or her own project. To be fair, members of the Iowa delegation likely would get ripped by constituents and local business groups if they didn't wade in and duke it out with other members of Congress for Iowa's share of the pork. Nussle would risk his bid for governor if he refused to seek money for the I-74 bridge.

Does it make it right and is it good government in the long run? You can ponder that one the next time you wait for the flagman to wave you on through.

I know fiscal conservative types really hate pork, but let’s revisit this visceral dislike. First we need to get over the ridiculous idea that if we pressure politicians to stop the pork, they’ll stop. Wrong. Nobody likes pork barrel politics, but everyone loves the idea of the Feds footing the bill for 30 miles of highway 20. Politicians know this fact, so what looks like pork in Boise is really an economic engine in Iowa. See.

Second, Iowan’s should pull down as much pork as is remotely possible. Don’t think so. You forget how much state money we put into educating kids who grow up, move away and contribute their incomes to some other state’s tax base. So essentially, through pork, we’re recouping our earlier investment spent on former Iowans. (The Tax Foundation has a good summary document on state's dollar return on federal taxes.)

Third, both sides have their share of to-the-trough interest groups. The democratic partisans can talk all they want about how certain members of Congress are moving too much pork…for Alaska. (Check out Chairman Don Young's opening comments on the highway bill and Senate membership on the highway bill Conference Committee and then think about it... if Nussle didn't extend a little love to those Alaska projects do you think we would have the money for the I-74 bridge project?) And we’ll just ask these guys the same question when it comes time for Senator Harkin to belly up to the health and human services budget table for his helping of pork. At least the highway bill Earmarks are for infrastructure as opposed to non-profit salaries and paper clips.

The idea of political pork speaks to the working title of this blog; things go around and come back around – just need to make sure you don’t miss the cycle.

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