Monday, June 9, 2008

Profiles in porkage

Three news stories, appearing in different parts of the country on the same day, put a human face on the congressional earmarking issue. It’s not a pretty face, to be sure; but a face all the same.

One story profiles a longtime member of Congress who is damn proud of his ability to “bring home the bacon.” He even seems to have kept a tally of his raids on the treasury and brags of personally delivering $7 billion in pork to the district – that’s illion with a capital B, he says. And his constituents evidently loved him for it, given his long tenure. Meet retired Rep. Ken Gray: Here’s a key quote. "If building hospitals, nursing homes and highways is pork, then I say pass the plate," Gray said, laughing. "Anybody who tells you that the greatest beneficiary of a pork barrel is the provider of the pork is wrong."

Perhaps I’m not alone in being thankful this guy retired.

The second story profiles what might be called the reluctant porker; a member of Congress who claims to oppose most earmarking on principle, recognizing that it’s a corruption of the budget process, but who indulges nonetheless, because he is a practical person. As long as everyone else is doing it, he figures, why shouldn’t I dunk my biscuit in the gravy bowl too? Meet New Jersey Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo: Here’s a key quote: "I don't believe the people that I represent should be unfairly disadvantaged by my self-imposing a moratorium when everybody else will be advocating on behalf of their constituents," says LoBiondo, who hastens to add that every earmark he sponsors is carefully vetted. Vetted by whom? LoBiondo and his staff, of course.

Finally, you have the relatively rare member of Congress who finds the feeding frenzy repugnant and declines to participate, hoping his constituents will reward him for his fiscal restraint. He may manage to stay in office, but most colleagues give him a wide berth in the cloakroom and at cocktail parties; sort of like the one clean cop in a dirty precinct. Meet California Rep. Devi Nunes: Here’s a key quote: "Earmark decisions are made in smoke-filled rooms by out-of-touch people who have a record of making poor decisions," Nunes said. "The process has enabled corrupt politicians to exploit their offices and is largely based on political patronage." Naturally, this sort of talk, though it has the ring of truth to it, doesn’t make Nunes popular with colleagues. Some suggest he’s even been targeted for retaliation, after crossing swords on a fiscal issue with Rep Jerry Lewis, a prodigious porker who chaired the House Appropriations Committee.

There you have it. Three different members of Congress, three different attitudes toward earmarking. And each tailors his position to fit a constituency.

Some Americans expect their congressperson to plunder at will. They seem driven by a sense of entitlement to get “their fair share” -- though it’s frequently much more than their fair share. Other Americans, though they understand earmarking is wasteful, corrupting and contributes to budget deficits, are pragmatists, who feel (with some justification) they’ll be taken advantage of by the plunderers if their man or woman in Congress doesn’t play the game.

Still others – a decided minority, in seems -- make the connection between high taxes, runaway spending and the total lack of fiscal discipline earmarking bespeaks. This latter group hopes, perhaps forlornly, that a modicum of fiscal discipline might be restored if their representative in Washington, while looking out for their legitimate interests, refrains from trying to bribe them with their own money -- which is what the earmarking racket amounts to.

Which mindset prevails will largely determine whether Congress ever kicks the earmarking habit.

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