Pork: It’s the Other Incumbent Protection Racket

PORK: IT’S THE OTHER INCUMBENT PROTECTION RACKET….Max Sawicky defends congressional pork today in his Pajamas Media column (yes, he has one), and it reminds me of something I ran across the other day. A couple of weeks ago Anderson Cooper set his interns loose to call every member of Congress and ask them what earmarks they had requested in the FY 2008 budget. Most of them scurried into hiding, but it turned out that my congressman, John Campbell, had his earmark requests already posted on his website. Here they are:

  • The Upper Newport Bay Ecosystem Restoration Project

  • The Irvine Basin Groundwater and Surface Water Improvement Project

  • Dana Point Harbor

  • Aliso Creek Mainstream Project

  • Prado Dam Flood Control and Water Conservation Project

Now, I don’t know anything about these projects, but I can pretty much guarantee that all of them are popular with Campbell’s constituents. There’s certainly nobody here in the California 48th who’s going to mount a Porkbusters campaign against Campbell for successfully getting funding for this list of feel-good ecological projects.

Which, paradoxically enough, is the real reason pork is so corrupting. Not because it wastes money: as Max points out, even today the total pork budget is a drop in the federal bucket (and the high-profile abuses are a smaller drop still). What’s more, if pork went away most of the money would get spent anyway, just on slightly different stuff. Even the money for the Bridge to Nowhere would simply be shifted to other Alaska projects if it got killed. No, the real problem with pork is the very fact that it is popular. It’s yet another way for incumbents to bring home the bacon, win the support of another few thousand constituents, and cement yet another 20-point victory in the next election.

Campbell’s earmarks are pretty instructive in this regard. I mean, the guy is a conservative Republican in Orange County, and short of the second coming of FDR his seat is safe until the day he dies. But he’s taking no chances: not only is he asking for a few earmarks, but he’s requesting funding for a laundry list of environmental do-goodism. Why? Because he can already count on the votes of all the conservative Republicans around here, and these earmarks are a good way of building some cheap support among people who wouldn’t normally back him. Any Democrat running against Campbell will always have to fight the usual conservative OC headwind, but now they’ll also have to fight the ambivalence of their own natural supporters, who may not like Campbell in general but appreciate the fact that he helped get them some money for that ecosystem restoration project they’ve been promoting for the past decade.

As a budget buster, earmarks aren’t really that big a deal, even after the Republican explosion of the past ten years. As part of Congress’s incumbent protection racket, though, they work like a charm. If there’s a reason to get rid of them, that’s the one to focus on.