· Pork-barrel projects, or pork, are so popular that it brings together liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike. But why?
· Despite not being politically fashionable, I support pork as long as all other priorities are paid for, because I believe the federal government has the duty to make this country better, and to some extent, however small, building new bridges, museums, parks, etc. does just that. Funding pork-barrel projects is part of the proper role of the federal government. And that should be something that my fellow liberal Democrats believe too.
· If supporting pork is liberal, and conservatives do it to stay in power, shouldn’t doing it get them out of power? Or does it mean, as I believe it does, that liberalism and big government is more popular than we are led to believe?
· We’ve ceded the rhetorical high ground, and we need to take it back by explaining to the American people – explicitly – the merits of big government. It’s time for us liberals to stand on the biggest soapbox in the country and loudly proclaim that we support big government, and why.
I know this is kinda old news, but on November 8 2007 Congress overrode a veto from President Bush for the first time. For what pressing cause did Congress do this? Ending the war in Iraq? Taking care of our children’s health? Expanding promising stem-cell research? NOPE. It was for that one thing that always brings Democrats and Republicans together – pork, short for pork-barrel projects. Pork-barrel projects generally refer to projects that are paid for at the federal level (i.e. by all taxpayers in the country) but benefit a specific or local interest, and are appropriated for political gain. They’re generally inserted (usually without a vote) into a must-pass bill like a defense spending bill, often anonymously, and are relentlessly criticized in the popular media as being useless and/or not the federal government’s responsibility. Famous examples include the “Bridge to Nowhere” and Hillary Clinton’s much-derided Woodstock Museum.
It’s interesting that only on the issue of pork – in this case, the Water Resources Development Act, which funds hundreds of projects like dams, sewage plants, beach restoration, and flood protection – are Democrats and Republicans united enough to override a presidential veto – and by a healthy margin too. It’s even more interesting because Republicans are always talking about how they’re the party of small government and that the federal government needs to limit spending, yet when it comes to projects that could affect their own districts and states, they suddenly become “big government’s” greatest champion.
Said Republican Senator David B. Vitter (La.): “This bill is enormously important, and it has been a long time coming.” Yet like any good Republican, he had to pay homage to Ronald Reagan and his defining small government philosophy: “Ronald Reagan’s vision of smaller government, less taxes, and a strong national defense has led to a prosperous America.” [emphasis mine] Earlier this year Vitter also voted against expanding SCHIP – another “big government” program – and when it did pass, approved of Bush’s veto.
It’s interesting to see how conservative Republicans who otherwise oppose expanding government eagerly flock to things like this water project bill. They can make the argument that infrastructure projects are different from things like heath care and welfare, where taxpayer money goes to fund individual people and their (not-so-perfect) lifestyles rather than public projects that everyone can equally use. But to me there is no difference. Paying for a levee in Louisiana is to me the same type of active government that pays for some Louisianan’s health care – and I support both.
Yes, I support pork, as long as all other priorities are paid for. Of course they’re less important than, say, health care for all Americans, and I don’t like that they’re placed anonymously in must-pass bills without a separate vote for them. And some things can be a waste of money (i.e. can be done for cheaper with the same result). But if everything else is being paid for (which of course is hardly the case at the moment, but bear with me), then I see no problem with paying for that bridge or that “useless” museum. Why? Because I believe the federal government has the duty to make this country better, and to some extent, however small, building new bridges, museums, parks, etc. does just that. The projects defined as pork (usually) have at least some benefit for the areas they’re in, and in my opinion what benefits one area benefits the whole country. I object to projects when they can be done more cheaply, or not at all, for the same results, but I do NOT object to pork-barrel projects on grounds of role of government – I think funding these projects is part of the proper role of the federal government.
That’s why it dismays me when Democrats – for example, Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), whom I’m otherwise a fan of – jump on the anti-pork bandwagon and campaign against them. Aren’t Democrats supposed to be fighting for active government? Yes, you can say that pork-barrel projects take away money that can be used for things like education and health care, but they’re not mutually exclusive, and moreover their cost, while often exaggerated by the media and sensationalist anti-pork politicians, is usually a drop in the pond for the colossal federal budget, and is dwarfed by the massive cost of the quintessential big-ticket big-government item, health care. I know that this isn’t politically fashionable to say, but I think that supporting pork – or more largely speaking, active government – is something that liberals and Democrats should stand for.
Which brings me to this: if supporting pork is a liberal position, does that make these conservative Republicans like David Vitter actual liberals? The cynical explanation is that supporting these projects is necessary to satisfy constituents and get reelected, which is the main reason conservative Republicans do so. But wait a minute, I thought only “19 percent of Americans are liberals”, and that big government is unpopular? If that’s the case, wouldn’t supporting pork lead to the politician being booted out of office, instead of being kept in? Is pork, the epitome of supposedly unpopular big government, not only popular, but so popular that supporting it is necessary for reelection?
It’s an interesting thing to think about. Okay, even if you don’t agree with me on pork, what about more fashionable items like education, health care and energy? Increased federal involvement and funding in these areas clearly have huge public support and are what’s necessary for the good of the country, yet conservatives in the media constantly drill into us the dangers and unpleasantness of “big government”. And New Democrats and DLC aficionados help them by nodding their heads dumbly and echoing their rhetoric.
I think the problem is not that people oppose big government per se, but rather, they oppose the idea of big government in theory while supporting its actions in practice. And I think that’s because of the unfortunate lack of advocacy for big government on the part of liberals and Democrats, which cedes the rhetorical high ground to conservative small-government philosophy. That, in turn, makes it easier for conservative Republicans to shoot down important goals like providing health care for all merely by declaring it to be evil “big government”. We cannot win the policy war without winning the rhetorical war. We’re already supporting big government in practice, but to really get things done and build an active government that can adequately take care of our country we need to build popular support for the idea of big government, and that starts in the hearts and minds of the American people. It’s time for us liberals to stand on the biggest soapbox in the country and loudly proclaim that we support big government, and why.