pageok
pageok
pageok
Porkbusting and Political Ignorance:

Porkbusters from across the political spectrum are lining up to support Senator Barack Obama's Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, bill that would establish an internet data base describing all federal grants and contracts (see, e.g., here and here). The bill is co-sponsored by conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn and "staunch liberals, determined conservatives and self-professed moderates" in the Senate have all endorsed it. Supporters of the bill hope that it will have a major impact in curtailing porkbarrel spending. Unfortunately, I am more skeptical.

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 and here), most citizens are "rationally ignorant" about politics and often don't know even very basic political information. For example, some 70 percent of the public did not know that Congress had enacted President Bush's massive $500 billion prescription drug bill, the most important new spending program in decades (source documented here). It is highly unlikely that any significant number of voters who couldn't be bothered to learn about the massive medicare bill will have either the time or the incentive to spend large amounts of time studying the new data base created by the Coburn-Obama Bill. 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.

Lack of information is not the principal cause of widespread porkbarrel spending. There are already numerous articles and studies that analyze wasteful spending, and even a longstanding public interest organization (Citizens Against Government Waste) specifically devoted to documenting it and combatting it (check out their annual Pig Book).

Indeed, the very fact that so many senators are flocking to support the Coburn-Obama bill in itself makes me suspicious. If they genuinely believe that it will lead to the demise of their favorite porkbarrel projects, I would expect much stronger opposition (the fact that one anonymous senator has placed a hold on the bill is far less opposition than should be expected to a bill that really busted pork).

I'm not opposed to the Coburn-Obama bill, and I believe that it might improve things at the margin. But any real solution to the problem of pork must lie elsewhere.

Sean M:
I don't think the claim is that average citizens will comb the database and use it as a Porkbusting tool. At least, it's not the more modest claim advanced by many in the blogosphere.

Instead, I think, the claim is that it will give interested citizen-advocates, like bloggers, a tool to cut through the often muddied and anonymous earmarks placed in bills currently. Then these citizen-activists can smoke out the truth in their local area and publish it for a mass audience. For that quest, I think (and hope) this database will be effective.
8.27.2006 11:39pm
M (mail):
Also, don't most people _like_ their pork? (And I don't mean the yummy swine product here.) No one thinks _their_ bridge is pork. Of course it will take a bit of log-rolling to get their perfectly reasonable new bridge or whatever, but that's just how things work. Each person believes the projects in _other_ states or districts or whatever is pork so would cut that, but not their own. But since they need the help of the others to get their own projects done, nothing gets cut. How would this approach change that, since that really seems to be the fundamental problem.
8.27.2006 11:41pm
Donald Douglas (mail) (www):
Don't forget logrolling -- the practice of trading votes among legislators (you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours) so that each gets the congressional goodies they want -- as a factor in the longevity of the porkbarrell.
8.27.2006 11:47pm
ras (mail):
Ilya,

But any real solution to the problem of pork must lie elsewhere.


It's not necessarily either/or. The public database can contribute - Sean M describes it nicely in the first comment - to an improvement.


M,

Also, don't most people _like_ their pork?


Pork is an incentive trap. If you and Ilya vote for federal pork, and I don't, then I end up subsidizing you guys. For voters to vote in favor of pork-barrelers is perfectly sensical unless the voters believe a sea-change in attitudes is coming, such as a "Gingrich Revolution." Why be a schmoo and subsidize everyone else?
8.28.2006 12:36am
Ilya Somin:
I don't think the claim is that average citizens will comb the database and use it as a Porkbusting tool....

Instead, I think, the claim is that it will give interested citizen-advocates, like bloggers, a tool to cut through the often muddied and anonymous earmarks placed in bills currently. Then these citizen-activists can smoke out the truth in their local area and publish it for a mass audience.


I don't deny this, and indeed mentioned the possibility in the post. But there are 2 problems. First, as I noted in the post, reading through the reports of "citizen-advocates" is also a time-consuming task that few voters will be willing to undertake. Second, as I also pointed out, there is already a large amount of public information available on pork from a wide variety of bloggers, activist groups, and others. That, unfortunately has not prevented massive porkbarrel spending from arising, because most ordinary citizens don't have the time and incentive to study the material the activists put out.
8.28.2006 12:56am
Lev:
Maybe...sooner or later...that Wall Street maxim might come into play: pigs get fat, hogs get slaughered.
8.28.2006 12:58am
therut:
I could care less if ANY pork came to my state. As a matter of fact I cringe when the Senators think they make me want to vote for them when I see Their great announcement of some money they got for some project in the paper. I still want to know why Sen. Blanche in AR thought it so great that she got 200,000 for dust control. I guess the water trucks are going to wet down the dirt roads around her rice patties in SE AR. She can keep her dirty water off my dirt road.
8.28.2006 1:40am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
While I agree this bill will likely make only a modest difference, pork can't truly be eliminated so long as the recipients of pork like the money more than they hate pork and swing congressmen need to be swayed, I don't follow the argument about the lack of opposition.

Everyone dislikes pork in principle. Because it is inefficent pork is a net loss to the country so if a bill could uniformly reduce pork why wouldn't most congressmen favor it? True one might argue that long time encumbants recieve an electoral benefit from their ability to bring home the pork but I think this advantage is more than outweighed by the political harm of publicly opposing an anti-pork bill.

I kinda feel that this is like arguing that a bill promoting "motherhood and apple pie" must be effective because no congressmen are coming out to oppose it.
8.28.2006 1:54am
Dave Griffith (mail):
The important point isn't that the public can search through the database. The important point is that the congressman's opponents can look through the database, searching for embarassing facts now concealed. These can then be turned into campaign ads, with checkable facts.

Most pork isn't attempting to help "the communty", it's attempting to help key contributors. There's plenty of value in publicizing such pork, and plenty of people with incentive to see that the worst of it is well publicized.
8.28.2006 8:39am
PersonFromPorlock:
One possibillity is that the database will make it possible not only to determine how much pork your Congressman brought home, but how much he voted for that went elsewhere. If it turns out that you paid more in taxes for other people's pork than you took in through your own, there will be pressure on him to vote for less pork, or at least for less pork that goes elsewhere. With every Congressman subject to the same pressure, there should be less pork overall.
8.28.2006 8:39am
noahpraetorius (mail):
Ease of examination will increase the exposure. Political types on the internet will see to that. Shine that light and let the spinning begin. The legislation will facilitate the process. Remember the adage "do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good".
8.28.2006 10:03am
cathyf:
I think that porkbusting is a futile exercise without controlling for unfunded mandates and other government-caused disasters. So the EPA mandates some completely useless abatement of an environmental "hazard" that costs a municipality's taxpayers millions of dollars. Then their local congresscritter gets them a $100,000 grant for a park, or museum -- which they could have paid for themselves if they had the millions that EPA had forced them to piss down a rathole. Or the state government takes years to pay their medicaid bills, and they set reimbursements at way below costs. Then the local congresscritter gets a few thousand in pork for the local hospital -- which they wouldn't have needed if the state had paid their bills on time and at a reasonable rate. Or a new republican president inexplicably passes a steel tariff which closes down thousands of small and medium sized manufacturers that use steel and forces them to move from rural small towns to Mexico where their inputs are cheaper. So the congresscritters pass a giant farm subsidy bill that makes up for a percentage of the lost manufacturing jobs.

People who are victims of government-caused disasters see the victims of natural disasters getting all sorts of "assistance" and wonder why it's only called "pork" when it goes to the victims of government. Proportionally speaking, the economic damage that the EPA can and has done to small towns dwarfs the economic damage that OBL did to lower Manhatten on 9/11. It's certainly too much to hope that the army will send special forces to hunt down EPA and HHS bureaucrats like they hunted the Taliban, but at the same time the would-be porkbusters out there need to understand that the reason that people feel entitled to the pork that they get is that it only starts to make up for the damages that government causes them. If you can't control unfunded mandates, then you'll never control pork.

cathy :-)
8.28.2006 11:58am
Not a lawyer, but ...:
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.

If you change "ordinary voters" to "reporters" I'd agree with you. (Of course, that would make the sentence an argument for the bill.)

Consider an analogy: trip reports and other reports of expenditures by Congressfolk. It took several groups something like six months and thousands of staff-hours to compile the information, available only on paper. And what they discovered, when they reported this year, among other things, was that in many cases required information (who paid for the trip, what was the purpose?) was omitted.

So yes, information may be "available", but the format (paper versus electronic) and accessibility matter a lot. And computer systems are a lot better at enforcing full data disclosure than are human beings.
8.28.2006 12:18pm
Bill Allison (mail) (www):
It's a little disingenuous to say that "the fact that one anonymous senator has placed a hold on the bill is far less opposition than should be expected to a bill that really busted pork." We don't know how many senators have placed holds on the bill; if several members of Appropriations did so, I think that would be significant.

Further, I'm not sure one can trust all those who say they support the bill. Plenty of members say they support lobbying reform, or naming the sponsors of earmarks, or other transparency measures, but these somehow never reach the floor of the House or Senate. It's relatively cost free to say you support good government measures without ever lifting a finger to do so.

There are relatively few Mitch McConnells in public life (that is, a politician who will make an intellectual argument defending an unpopular practice like soft money contributions of the parties). There are far more who say they support greater transparency but do little to foster it. And if there were no secret hold on this legislation -- if it could actually be put to an up or down vote -- would it actually get the votes of all those Senators who say they support it?
8.28.2006 1:04pm
Medis:
I tend to agree that this is a collective action problem: we all agree that the government's taketh-and-giveth-away scheme is inefficient, but individual people/groups/communities/states will be screwed if they try to fight the system alone.

And in that sense, while it is hard to know what role something like this Act could play in addressing the problem, anything which could serve as a rallying point for the public is potentially useful and worth trying.
8.28.2006 2:11pm
james (mail):
The bill gives citizens an opportunity to be more active in their government. What is wrong with that?
8.28.2006 3:30pm
jerryg (mail):
I think it interesting that as of this date only one of the Senators who is not "in the clear" is listed by his/her caller in a distinctive way. That person is Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who moreover, is reported as having been uncommonly negative, while admitting that she knows who it is.
8.28.2006 3:37pm
SlimAndSlam:
The real problem with this bill is its acronym. You can't tell me that 51 senators will join the FFATA movement.

(You're a great crowd! Tip your waitstaff!)

Semi-seriously: has anyone looked at the role an effective acronym plays in getting a bill passed - or the role that an unfortunate acronym played in getting it killed? This article is amusing, and anecdotes are always a good time, but I have the feeling that there's room for serious study of this. (Though designing the study would be quite difficult.)

{/threadjack}
8.28.2006 3:48pm
KirkH (mail) (www):
This isn't about your average American scanning the database. It's about journalists, bloggers, etc. scanning it and influencing the casual reader, who votes.
8.28.2006 4:55pm
srp (mail):
The only caveat here is that sometimes you can logroll to cut entitlements by giving incumbents lots of pork. A small cut in the growth rate of Medicare would more than pay for all the pork in the budget. Cathyf's comments above are also, sadly, right on target.
8.28.2006 5:55pm