December 25, 1992

The Pork Barrel

I'd rather keep my promises to other politicians than to God. God, at least, has a degree of forgiveness.

Anonymous politician

I have tried, in vain, to find out where the expression "the pork barrel" originated. It has been around for a long time. People sneer at pork barrel politics as if it were something dirty and beyond contempt. Aside from pure hypocrisy, the only reason that a politician would sneer at it is if he can't make it work to his advantage. The fact is that pork barrel politics is the only kind of politics that there is in a republic. There ain't no other kind.

There is an old story about a man who told his friend that the roulette game that he was playing was crooked. His friend replied that he knew that it was crooked.

"Why do you play it?" he asked.

"Because it's the only game in town."

Every politician is elected by the people at home. He is expected to do what's best for those people who elected him. If the largest employer in his district is a factory that makes military aircraft, he is expected to make sure that he enthusiastically supports any military appropriations bill --even if he happens to be a committed pacifist. The reason very few legislators vote against a military appropriations bill is because the people in The Pentagon who craft it, make sure that there is something in it for every state in the union. Every state gets its share of the pork.

How does a congressman make sure that his pet bill passes? He does it by trading votes. He will vote for Sen. Fogbound's bill if Sen. Fogbound will vote for his. A legislator's effectiveness is largely a function of how good a trader he is. Lyndon Johnson was an olympic medalist at the game. As a consequence, he managed to get any legislation that he wanted through congress. Jimmy Carter didn't. Any president who expects to be effective has to be a horse trader, or have someone in congress who can do it for him. It remains to be seen how effective Clinton will be.

Two current issues apply here. One is term limits and the other is the line item veto.

If term limits become the law of the land, the effect will be to get rid of those legislators who are masters of the trading game and replace them with amateurs. I suspect that it takes ten years to really master the game. If everyone is inexperienced, it wouldn't matter much. However, if just some states have term limits, those who come to congress from states without term limits will end up controlling congress. It would be the equivalent of a professional team playing an amateur team, and you know which team will win. This was the case during my younger years, when any Southern Democrat could be elected and re-elected as long as he was still breathing. Since the Republicans were the party of The Union, southerners just wouldn't vote for them. As a consequence, Southern Democrats controlled most of the committees that had real power. That's why I voted against California's term limits initiative, which passed in spite of my opposition. If most states pass term limit initiatives, it then is possible that congress may pass a federal law or a constitutional amendment; (whichever is legal) to extend term limits to all federal legislators as well as the president.

I hear my mother's voice from beyond the grave saying "but that's not right!" I agree with her, but I also know that crime, war, cancer, incompetence and many other things also are not right, but there isn't a damn thing that anyone can do about them. To coin a phrase, they are as inevitable as death and taxes.

Every president would have liked to have a line item veto. This means that he could veto specific items in a bill without having to veto the whole thing.

Just suppose that this fairy tale comes true and the president gets that line item veto, how would he use it? To hear a president talk, he would use it to cut out a lot of pork and he will then be able to balance the budget. That's what he says, but that's not what would happen. The president will trade his veto for votes just like congressmen do; if you vote for my universal medical care bill, I won't veto your federal pig farm amendment. In other words, congressional pork will become presidential pork. This will put an unprecedented amount of power into the hands of the chief executive. Is that good or bad? That depends on who the chief executive happens to be.

I don't think that it's a good idea to give one person that much power. But without the line item veto, how can he possibly balance the budget? The only way that I know of is to increase taxes or pray for the economic miracle of unbridled economic expansion, like the ones that happened to Nixon, Carter and Reagan --the miracle that vanished during the Bush administration.

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