Why Transparency Doesn’t Prevent Pork:

Jacob Sullum has an excellent article in Reason explaining why the recently enacted transparency reforms have had little effect in curbing porkbarrel spending. Despite the reforms, which mandate disclosure of earmarked pork projects, the new Democratic Congress is shoveling out pork at a rate almost equal to the record posted by the Republicans in 2005.

Sullum notes that transparency is unlikely to actually prevent pork because congressmen actually want to publicize pork that benefits their constituents (and thereby improves their odds of getting reelected). But why would congressmen want to publicize their involvement in a practice that, although it benefits certain narrow interest groups, is hugely unpopular with the general public? I answered that question in a post last year, where I predicted that transparency reforms would fail to curb pork (as they indeed have):

The real problem is not that we have too little information. It is that we can’t effectively use the information we already have. The main reason why porkbarrel projects get approved is not so much that information about them is unavailable, but that ordinary voters have little incentive to read it and process it. As I have argued in many of my academic writings (e.g. – here . . .), most citizens are “rationally ignorant” about politics and often don’t know even very basic political information . . . It is highly unlikely that any significant number of voters . . . will have either the time or the incentive to spend large amounts of time studying [a] new data base [on pork projects]. Few will take the time to determine which of thousands of federal grants are wasteful pork and which are legitimate expenditures. Even those voters who do study the database could well be misled by creative labeling. For example, even a clear case of porkbarrel spending such as the notorious “bridge to nowhere” is unlikely to be labeled as such in the data base. Rather, creative congressional staffers could call it something like “spending for essential transportation infrastructure.” To be sure, experts will not be fooled, but ordinary voters easily could be unless they devote many hours to the task of smoking out the truth. While they may be willing to do so for a few particularly notorious and highly publicized projects, that is unlikely to happen in the case of the vast majority of porkbarrel grants. To be sure, activist organizations could do some of the spade work for the voters. But reading reports prepared by these organizations and determining which ones are accurate and credible is still a difficult and time-consuming task that few voters are likely to take on.

Unlike ordinary voters, the well-organized interest groups that benefit from pork have the time, expertise, and incentive to keep track of pork projects that serve their interests. Thus, disclosure of porkbarrel projects can help congressmen gather support from the project’s beneficiaries without significantly reducing their standing with the general public (most of whom don’t even know their congressmen’s names, much less their positions on pork). As Sullum puts it, “[a]lthough honesty and openness are surely preferable to dishonesty and secrecy (in politics, at least), they’re not an adequate solution to a government that does too much and is therefore a magnet for people seeking gifts and favors.” Amen.