It's another of those ex malo bonum moments -- the kind when, piecing together recollections of high school Latin, you reflect that "out of bad, good may come." The much-advertised federal budget crunch, with attendant hand-wringing and epithet-slinging, could qualify as such an occasion. Nobody is overjoyed to contemplate a $521 billion deficit for 2005, but it's good to recall how Republicans and Democrats arrived here hand in hand: namely, by trashing the spirit of the Constitution.
A project of this magnitude takes imagination, not to mention presidential-congressional cooperation. You vote (as Congress recently did) $2 million in federal money for teaching kids to play golf and $325,000 for a local swimming pool. Small potatoes, but it adds up, to paraphrase the late, great Everett Dirksen. The commitment grows to Do Good Things. When the White House, in its 2005 budget, asks $13.3 billion for K-12 education, you smile warmly. All you want to know is, is that enough?
From the founding fathers, were they still around, we could expect splutters of "Egad, sir!" Bad habits of the past half-century have caught up with both major parties. With Republicans the shame is perhaps greater. They're supposed to lick spendthrifts, not join them.
FDR's man Harry Hopkins probably never said (as Republicans claimed he had), "We will tax and tax and spend and spend and elect and elect." Still, the words describe with a certain blunt precision the political habit of vote-buying. Not, these days, here's a fiver, see you at the polls. Rather, here's $5 million (or $5 billion) for your road/dam/courthouse/public school district/ethanol project. No explicit follow-up is indicated. The voter-recipient has got the message. He knows his friends when he sees them.
The whole unseemly process has a name -- a slobbering, lip-smacking name -- porkbarrel politics. Porkbarrel has been around since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. Its foundational cause is the love of political power.
There is a corollary explanation, though: our unwillingness to talk about the proper duties of government. We assume these days that when something -- anything -- is amiss, the federal government should act. Now technically the Constitution doesn't give the federal government a lot of latitude to perform on demand. Golf lessons for kids? Where in the Constitution do we find the slightest hint of such a governmental function? And yet . . .