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The Bear Strikes Back

Last week on Pajamas Media, economist Max Sawicky took aim at the Porkbusters and their campaign to cut so-called "earmarks" in Congressional appropriations bills. Now NZ Bear - one of Porkbusters' fathers - gets his innings.

by
NZ Bear

Bio

June 25, 2007 - 11:58 pm

Max Sawicky opens his limp attack on the Porkbusters movement by passionately declaring “To an industrial-strength liberal like me, any waste of public funds is of profound concern.” Max then proceeds to spend the remainder of his piece framing an exception to that bold statement that seems to boil down to “except any waste of public funds identified by Porkbusters, because they’re evil tools of the military-industrial complex.”

No, really. That’s what he said — I’m not creative enough to make this stuff up:

“…the so-called “porkbuster” movement is not really motivated by an interest in government efficiency, but by a deeper hostility to the public sector in all its works but one – the defense establishment. (A genuine conservative named Dwight D. Eisenhower called it the “military-industrial complex,” and labeled it a grave danger to the republic.)”

(Somewhere, a liberal angel just got their wings, as is known to happen any time a lefty invokes Dwight Eisenhower to decry the military-industrial complex).

OK, so he didn’t actually use the word “evil”, but he did imply we were part of a “grave danger to the Republic”, which is arguably even better. Come to think of it, that might have to replace our favorite Trent Lott quote on the Porkbusters page header. “Porkbusters: A Grave Danger To the Republic” — it has a certain ring to it, to be sure. Someone call CafePress and update our t-shirts.

Anyway, this is the spot where I’d include my own rebuttals to Max’s arguments as to why he feels Porkbusters is an ETOTMIC (Evil Tool Of The Military Industrial Complex). But, er… he doesn’t actually make any, and certainly doesn’t even attempt to provide any evidence to suggest Porkbusters favors earmarks that benefit the defense establishment. I’m going to take a wild guess here, so bear with me: the reason he doesn’t present any evidence is because none exists.

Porkbusters is about fighting earmarks, or more precisely, the gawd-awful, opaque, corrupt processes that are currently used to create them. It’s not about applying one set of rules to Earmarks We Like, and another set to Earmarks We Don’t Like. It is about working to improve the process across the board in ways that open up our legislative process to all citizens, so that we can collectively assure ourselves that our government is spending our money in responsible ways.

And take note: this isn’t a strictly conservative idea. You can very easily take the position that earmarks (and in particular, secret earmarks) are a bad thing, and still want to increase federal spending on programs you think are good things. That is entirely the point, in fact: Porkbusting is about eliminating waste and ensuring transparency, so that then we can have intelligent discussion and debate about what programs we should be spending our money on.

“But N.Z.,” Max might decry (if he were even really trying to advance an argument), “Porkbusters has never ever done a major effort to highlight earmarks in a defense bill! I’ve caught you out red-handed, you fiend. Victory is mine!”

To which I answer (twirling my moustache in an appropriately sinister manner): er, yeah. But we’ve also never done a major effort on Agriculture earmarks. Or Education earmarks. Or virtually any other specific type of earmarks. The one exception being a push we made on Health and Human Services earmarks, which frankly didn’t go all that far, but was selected not because we hate HHS, but because the bill happened to be a slow-moving target that we were able to get data on and the timing was right.

Which bring up an important point to keep in mind if you want to throw accusations at Porkbusters along the lines of “you haven’t spent time on X, and that proves you’re an X-loving, Y-hating tool of the Z establishment.” The “official” Porkbusters movement — i.e., Porkbusters.org — consists of two guys. Glenn Reynolds, whose idea it was in the first place, and me. That’s it. Not only have we never taken any public funding for our efforts, we’ve never taken a single dime of donations from anyone, anywhere.

We have no organization, no staff, no funding (and yes, that means Glenn and I pay for server expenses and the like out of our own pockets). We’ve just got an idea, and a lot of folks across the blogosphere and in other fine groups like Citizens Against Government Waste and The Sunlight Foundation (and many more) who tend to agree with us. Neither I nor Glenn can afford to devote our every waking hour to Porkbusters, but we can afford to devote some of them — or at least, we choose to, whether we can afford to or not. So Max, if you’re not happy that we haven’t focused on any Defense related earmarks, here’s an offer for you: next time a big Defense appropriations bill with pork in it comes around, if you’ll volunteer to do the work on it, we’ll gladly host the effort at Porkbusters and promote it.

Returning to Max’s lamentation, he complains:

“The most conspicuous delusion promulgated by the Porkbusters has to do with scale. Congressional earmarks are said to be a huge drain of resources. When you are dealing with large and unfamiliar numbers, however, “compared to what?” is the salient question.”

Sigh. Pork makes up a tiny percentage of our overall spending! Stop the presses, this is a real newsflash. Oh, but wait, where have I heard this before? Ah yes, from folks like Andrew Sullivan and Pontifex Ex Machina. In 2005.

Glad you could join us, Max! And so sorry to wake you.

Conveniently, since this argument was asked-and-answered way-back-then in 2005, a bit of cutting and pasting is all I need here to provide Max his needed refresher course:
“Yes, the amounts of pork we’re identifying are chump change in comparison to the overall fiscal fiasco that we call the federal budget. But the exact dollar amounts saved by trimming specific pork projects aren’t the point.

To me, the point is to take a step — a small one, granted — towards a culture of greater fiscal responsibility in Washington. If we can hold our representatives on Capitol Hill accountable for the small bits of pork, then perhaps that example will also make them think twice about the larger boondoggles that plague our government.”

Now, does that look like I’m “promulgating” the “delusion” that earmarks are a huge drain of resources compared to the overall budget? Methinks not. (Although “Porkbusters: Promulgating the Delusion Since 2005″ also has a nice ring to it. Damn, I may have to send Max a cut of our T-shirt revenues.)

But beyond his nitpicking over the dead-and-buried horse of that particular argument, Max also conveniently ignores (or is willfully ignorant of) the fact that Porkbusters is not simply about earmarks. We also focus our efforts on transparency and openness in government — most notably with the “secret hold” campaign that directly resulted in the passage of The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (aka Coburn/Obama) ,which requires that all federal spending be placed online in a searchable database accessible to all citizens.
Of the secret hold effort, then Majority Leader Bill Frist had this to say:

“Without the hard work of men and women like Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, Mark Tapscott of the Examiner Editorial Board, Ed Morrissey of Captain’s Quarters, NZ Bear of Truth Laid Bear, Robert Bluey on Human Events, Liz Mair of GOP Progress, and Paul Kiel of TPM Muckraker (to name but a few), this legislation would likely never have received the President’s signature. And, with their continued efforts, I’m confident that the database created today will help keep Washington’s addiction to wasteful spending in check.”

Max would be well advised to note the inclusion of Paul Kiel on Senator Frist’s list. Paul and his colleagues and readers at TPM Muckraker were indeed a vital part of the campaign, because they recognized that transparency in government spending is not a right-vs-left issue.

And guess what: when folks on the left and folks on the right recognize that efforts like this are indeed in the national interest — rather than, oh, say, flinging around accusations about people being in the pocket of the defense establishment — things can actually get done. Coburn/Obama was a huge step, and we’ll start seeing the impact of it in 2008 when the database comes online. I’m proud of what we achieved there, and of what Porkbusters has accomplished overall. So Max: keep on writing columns. Me, I’ll just keep working with all my friends and allies in the Porkbusters movement to actually do something to change the way our country and our government works.

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