Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pork and Political Vegetarianism

The next few months should be highly entertaining for Congress watchers.

Take an entrenched group of Republicans who haven’t bothered to make any real policy decisions since their last leader left office (unless you call “No!” a policy). Add a starry-eyed group of freshmen officials with the idea they have a mandate to change things. (Some of the latter, like Rand Paul, seem to be devotedly, if misguidedly, motivated by strong opinions of exactly how things should change.) Toss in some “red meat”—one or more of the popular buzz words, the mere mention of which can get Tea Partiers worked up into a froth; specifically, toss in the word “pork.”

Voilá! You now have the makings of a real political free-for-all.

They’re off!

Never mind the wars. Never mind jobs. Never mind foreign policy or increasingly deadly weather patterns or our disastrous dependence on oil. Like a bunch of first graders playing soccer for the first time, they’re off in a pack to chase the ball wherever it may lead them, everybody trying to get in a kick.

Here’s the reality: What conservatives snidely refer to as “pork” is the reason folks in Congress—especially in the House—get elected (and stay elected).

Adding “pork”—also called “earmarks”—to major pieces of legislation is the only way legislators can get Congress to act on the myriad of little things they will never vote on as a body. There will never be a national debate about whether a new bridge should be built to replace a crumbling one in Hoboken. Or whether a port should be upgraded to help the economy of a struggling coastal town. Or whether a small dam should be built in a remote district to allow for irrigation of nearby land.

Collectively, these are the little things that really matter to voters—whether the tiny patch of America on which they live is habitable, or accessible in the winter time, or able to support their children if they choose to continue living in the area where they grew up.

After a good deal of arm twisting, even Mitch McConnell—a 26-year Congressional veteran who has been a staunch defender of earmarks—caved into peer pressure and agreed to support the GOP’s grandstanding gesture of banning earmarks. Of course, neither he nor the others who came out in support of this ridiculous idea have any intention of not trying to get favors for their constituents back home—they just want to be able to say it’s the fault of the Democrats for not going along with the idea.

Bottom line: Earmarks comprise about 1.5% of the Federal budget, or $7.7 billion of this year’s $410 billion budget.

Now, how about those tax breaks for the rich, which would add $36 billion to the deficit next year alone?

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