"Pork-Busters" Busted

To an industrial-strength liberal like me, any waste of public funds is of profound concern. I've got a long list of swell things the government could be doing. By contrast, and contrary to appearances, 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.)

In short, when porkbusters speak of government waste, they have no idea what they are talking about. Or no real interest in it.

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.

For fiscal year 2005, total federal spending was $2,472 billion (pdf) (Table 1.1). The cost of earmarks according to the Bush administration was less than $19 billion. Now to any person, business, or even state government, $19 billion is a lot of money. To the feds, however, not so much. Without a doubt, some wonderful things could be done with $19 billion, maybe by the government, maybe by you, but it hardly explains the extent of the federal deficit, which was $318 billion in 2005.

A second delusion about pork is that it is spread willy-nilly throughout the budget. In fact, over 44 percent of the total was in the defense appropriations bill. This would not surprise anyone familiar with the federal budget, since defense is roughly half of what is termed "discretionary spending" -- spending that requires annual appropriations by Congress. Discretionary spending in 2005 was 39 percent of total spending (previous link, Table 8.3).

The previous two paragraphs spoke to levels, but there are also dynamics. In very-long-range projections of federal spending, total discretionary spending is put in the single digits -- five, six, or seven percent of gross domestic product. What really blows up in the numbers are just two items: health care spending under Medicare and Medicaid, and net interest. No dire predictions for the federal budget give any role to "pork."

All of the doomsday predictions you have heard are founded on two unlikely developments: that we sit back and watch Medicare/Medicaid eat up an additional ten percent of GDP, while simultaneously failing to raise sufficient taxes to finance government programs, causing debt and interest to balloon. As the great Republican economist Herbert Stein said, "If something can't continue, it won't."

So pork, broadly defined, is not a factor in the present or the future. Still, we should care about government waste, so what is pork, anyway?

The Porkbusters send you to the self-proclaimed Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) for information about pork. CAGW compiles their "pig book" of bad federal programs, defined as an expenditure satisfying any of the following criteria:

  1. Requested by only one chamber of Congress.

  2. Not specifically authorized.

  3. Not competitively awarded.

  4. Not requested by the President.

  5. Greatly exceeds the President's budget request or the previous year's funding.

  6. Not the subject of congressional hearings.

  7. Serves only a local or special interest.

Let's take 'em one by one.

1. The fact that a program originated in only one house of Congress has no intrinsic bearing on its merit. When the House and Senate differ on legislation, the ensuing conference committee often incorporates concerns of one side or the other. You could say such a genesis is a tip-off, but not more than that.

2. Spending not enumerated in legislation automatically implicates the Executive Branch, since it is the latter that has the formal discretion to spend money from this source. So there is more than Congress involved here. The White House is in it too. It is well known that President Bush had failed to veto a single piece of legislation before the Democratic takeover of Congress.

3. This is another tip-off, but it could be applied to huge swaths of the federal budget, not just earmarks. Most of the contracting associated with the Iraq war has not been competitive. Is the Iraqi occupation one big pork barrel? Where are the Porkbusters? In fact they are among the most prominent boosters of this type pork, so who ya gonna call? The fact is that most contracting in the federal government is done by the Defense Department, and most of that is not competitive either. What is really in need of overhaul is procurement practice from top to bottom. The 'pork' theme is a misdirection from the free ride the Feds give their business vendors at the behest of their donees in Congress (predominantly Republican, but including numerous Democrats).

4. In the Constitution, Congress has the 'power of the purse.' There is no reason everything -- or anything -- in the final budget has to originate in the White House.

5. Same point. There is nothing binding about a president's budget request. It is the prerogative of Congress to write the budget, to add to or subtract from it according to its own rights.

6. This is probably the best point made by CAGW. More openness would be better. But it's not possible to vet $2.8 trillion-with-a-T worth of spending in great detail. There isn't enough time in the world. For that we need more and better bureaucrats.

7. The problem here is that what is of national interest and what is not is in the eye of the beholder. Somebody's got to make the decision. That's why we have elected representatives. We would like them to make more use of expert testimony, peer review, and other good government practices. The Internet is not a very good substitute. Some high-profile boondoggles like the "bridge to nowhere" can get the black marks they deserve, but the application of rule by cyber-mob is not going to add much knowledge to the


Bottom line, the Porkbusters and the Citizens Against Government Waste don't know what government waste is. They don't have analysis; they have a checklist.

Let's take the very first graph of their diatribe from the FY2006 "pig book":

"$33,907,000 added by the Senate for projects in the state of Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), including: $10,000,000 for the Mississippi Conservation Initiative; $5,766,000 for the Wildlife Habitat Management Institute; $1,433,000 for curriculum development at Mississippi Valley State University; $1,389,000 for the Delta Conservation Demonstration Center in Washington County; $936,000 for advanced spatial technologies; $517,000 for aquaculture research; $300,000 for the National Center for Natural Products; $180,000 for natural products research; and $50,000 for cotton ginning research."

I note in passing that Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) is not exactly my kind of guy. But who is to say the Mississippi Conservation Initiative is not a useful endeavor? Doesn't everybody know by now that destruction of wetlands on the Gulf Coast increases vulnerability to hurricanes, and isn't this a national concern? (If it weren't, why would the rest of the country provide aid?)

At face value, there are bound to be things in any list of earmarks that are in danger of not passing the laugh test. Do we need $50,000 of cotton ginning research? I couldn't say for sure, but I suspect the economy could progress without it. My own favorites have been the National Packard Museum and the Birmingham, Alabama Statue of Vulcan. The overtly silly stuff is itself a small share of a small portion of the federal budget. There are more important things to get excited about.

The porkbusting movement is both ambitious and trivial. It is ambitious in hoping to throw a monkey wrench into the gears of government spending. Its criteria for rejecting spending are arbitrary. It really doesn't hold much regard for any sort of public spending except the war-making kind. Earmarks, especially the silly kind, provide a big target. One clue to the real agenda is the utter disinterest of the Porkbusters in "tax pork" -- provisions in tax legislation with no better justification than the aggrandizement of narrow interests.

Porkbusting is trivial because the size of the target has little to do with the underlying aim of undermining the welfare state. The real pressure for spending growth is elsewhere, in the major entitlement programs - Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. When a big deal is made in this area, some pork tidbits get swept in the wake, to buy off your miscellaneous congressperson. Exhibit A is Bush's prescription drug program.

I could go further -- that's my job here, after all -- and say that pork in moderation serves a constructive role. When something big and difficult needs to be done, it helps to be able to grease the wheels. Sometimes I would oppose these big and difficult things, like, say, nation-building in sandy places. Sometimes you would and I wouldn't.

The Porkbusters reckon accurately that they have the handle on something potentially important, but the need for government -- or, if you prefer, the public acceptance of it -- is overwhelming. You might as well take a match to an iceberg. Pork is here to stay. Try it with some black bean sauce.

Max B. Sawicky is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. He has worked in the Office of State and Local Finance of the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. He is a member of the National Board of Americans for Democratic Action and serves on the editorial advisory board of Working USA. He is a frequent contributor to TPM Cafe. Sawicky's page can be found at Max Speak, You Listen!