Earmarked pork, hard and soft

Posted: May 11, 2008 12:00 AM

The original metaphor was the pig. You could say, in the beginning was the pig. And the pig was with the politicians. And, boy, did the politicians pig out.

I refer, of course, to pork-barrel politics . . . that is, the kind of spending that usually falls under the rubric “earmarks” these days. Politicians love this “other white meat” because it allows them to take more direct credit for specific government spending.

But voters, for a number of reasons, have become increasingly fed up with earmarked, pork spending. They think of all that money wasted, tens of billions. Just a drop in the bucket, amongst trillions? Well, common sense suggests you cut the easy, least credible spending first.

And pork just seems wrong to many Americans, in part because it’s all very un-federalistic. The Federal Principle — which, you know, is right there in the Constitution — assigns to the federal government only those tasks that cannot be handled at state and local level. Local projects (such as libraries and bike paths and such) are, ipso facto, not federal in nature. Therefore, to allow politicians at the national level to spend money on them is something of an affront.

Besides, pork encourages corruption faster than you can say “trichinosis.” By slopping out huge dollops of the federal budget onto purely local projects, our representatives begin to think that their job is to spend federally raised tax money to appease influential constituents at home. It trades statesmanship for a never-ending auction, all to fund re-election campaigns.

And it corrupts us, too. When pork spending is prevalent, it becomes easy to get caught up in the feeding.

A Very Short History of Pork
First there were “internal improvements.” Then there was out-and-out “pork” — that is, piggish spending directed by federal representatives to their district.

Then, says H.L. Mencken, author of that great big book, The American Language, there was “pork-barrel spending.” Same thing as pork, really.

I confess: Before consulting that bible of American word history, I had assumed that “pork-barrel” had come first, and that “pork” was merely a shortened form of the term. I was wrong. “Pork” came first. Why the elaboration of the word? Perhaps the amount of pork had grown so much that Americans needed a metaphorical barrel to handle it all.

And then there were earmarks. Why call “pork” spending “earmarks”? Well, that was something of a mystery to me at first, too. It turns out that our representatives earmark legislation with their pork, like livestock herders earmark their cattle . . . and pigs. To assert ownership. Spending projects are earmarked into bills as a personalized alternative to specify spending . . . alternative to the normal way of directing spending. This does seem to be the meaning of the term.

But we have learned something interesting these last several years: Many spending initiatives called “earmarks” are not exactly inserted into legislation properly, but somewhat surreptitiously into legislative addenda, the explanatory notes attached to the legal text of bills passed by Congress.

There is a reason the spending is directed this way. It allows politicians to get credit from special interests without being public enough to risk criticism.

The Way We Earmark Now
There is a name for these addenda-placed earmarks: “soft earmarks.” And there is a method, which can be summarized in one interjection: Shhhh.

It seems all congressfolk need do is ask, politely, that something be funded. No mention of who really gets the money; no mention, even of the amount. But hey, if asked-for nicely enough, the executive branch has proved more than willing to fund . . . without all the fuss and mess of Congress voting.

Fund what? Oh, a Christian shortwave radio in Madagascar. Pest-fighting efforts in Maryland. Saving hawks in Haiti.

According to the New York Times, these have all been funded without anyone in Congress, or on congressional staff, ever really writing out what the cost would be, or even saying “fund this.” It’s all very polite.

And insidious. Ron Nixon, in the aforementioned Times, presents us with chilling news indeed:

[S]oft earmarks, while not a new phenomenon, have drawn virtually no attention and were not included in the ethics changes — and current ones under consideration — because Congress does not view them as true earmarks.
Their total cost is not known. But the [Congressional Research Service] found that they amounted to more than $3 billion in one spending bill alone in 2006, out of 13 annual appropriations bills. And the committee that handles the bill, which involves foreign operations, has increasingly converted hard earmarks to soft ones.

Yes, the whole system of earmarking is a system of bluster and threat and fear . . . done quietly. Stephen Slivinski, writing in Business Week, also noted sometime back how easy it is to slip from hard earmarking to soft earmarking:

Congress could simply give a bucket of money to an agency with no strings attached. But then a member of the Appropriations committee would write a letter to the department head that read something like, “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if Project X got some of this pot of money?”
Can you really blame a department head who reads a letter like that — from a member of Congress who controls his budget and oversees his agency — and obliges?

However, since late January, there has been on file an Executive Order from the president directing the Executive Branch to ignore such requests. The tough part of it is that, if it actually turns out that this executive move scuttles substantial anti-soft-earmark blackmail, we will almost certainly see soft earmarks turn hard faster than yesterday’s oatmeal.

So does it all boil down to politicians? We may be in the deepest of doo, then, for the temptation to spend money quickly, and without debate, is too great for most politicians. A number of congressional Republicans have made seemingly bold moves against the pork system, yes (I have reported on them in the past). And there has been scattered Democratic interest in resisting pork, too. For some reason, though, Barack Obama’s March challenge to Hillary Clinton fizzled and sputtered and impressed only a few. There has not been much talk since.

Are You a Porker Too?
We work hard for the money; we don’t want it spent so easily that soft words are all that’s needed. It should be voted on. Openly. Honestly. And preferably defeated.

How can we — individual citizens — make a difference?

Well, one way might be to speak up locally, in government meetings, against even asking for pork spending — hard or soft — from the federal government. Such projects are often broached first at the city and county level, then at the federal. Your local “economic development council,” or whatever you call it in your area, has representatives dressed in good clothing, and their job is to speak up for pork whenever they can. Perhaps if more people stood up against such folk — against the proponents of projects that depend for their very existence on outstretched hands, reaching across the Potomac — politicians on Capitol Hill might be a little less inclined to make either a hard push or a soft one for pork.

In Democracy in America (1835-40), Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville expressed his astonishment at how many committees and organizations there were, trying to do good work: Build things; Help folks; Sponsor events. The burgeoning of this culture was unparalleled in his time.

Just as hard earmarks get turned into soft earmarks — and turned back into hard earmarks again — so too, in our time, has too much of America’s community-based industry been transformed from volunteer funding to conscript funding . . . that is, to tax-based funding through the porking system.

It is time to turn this around. Before it is too late.

Before we Americans become oinkers all.