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Saturday, September 24, 2005

A number of conservative/libertarian bloggers are participating in "porkbusters" , an effort to press Congress to cut un-necessary federal spending in their districts to pay for the massive costs of Katrina.

Jonah Goldberg thinks it is doomed to failure, and he is probably right. The money quote:

The porkbusters fight is fun now, but not since early cave men tried to train grizzly bears to give them tongue-baths has a project seemed more obviously doomed to end in disappointment. Expecting Congress — of either party — to give back pork which has already been approved and passed into law is like expecting crack whores to give refunds days after services have been rendered.

My thinking is that this is a huge "Free Rider" problem for Congress. Everyone wants to cut "unnecessary" spending, but nobody is willing to pay the cost (of votes, support, money) for cuts to their district. How to do it, then?

Thankfully, there is already a model for success.

The military Base Realignment Closure Commission takes the individual members of Congress out of the process until the final vote. Members are forced to vote on the overall package, up or down -- there is no opportunity to cut deals or gut the bill. Also, BRAC (smartly) aims high, allowing some members to score points by saving a project or two. Plus, not every member of Congress faces a cut, so building a majority for the cuts is actually possible.

Why not do the same thing for Katrina? We can save hundreds of millions of dollars. Plus, members will be forced to make a choice -- between voting for a small special interest in their district, or voting to save taxpayers a big chunk of money. Since it is an either-or vote, and the commission would pick projects that benefit small groups at the expense of the broader population, I think members would be foolish to give their opponents a huge club to beat them over the head with come election time.

Think about it -- would you vote against a massive bill that was specifically labeled as cutting millions in pork, if it affected some small group in your district?

Yes, it's crazy, but it...just... might... work.

Thoughts? JPC can you get on this? This should be the President's proposal.

NOTE: I updated this post with a link to and quote from Jonah's post. I also made a small editing change to make it more readible and give it a punchier headline.

I believe the President has heard from conservatives and on principle is willing to keep the budget down. He is looking for offsets to help fund the Katrina relief, but is unwilling to take on Congress and tighten their belt.

I think that TJ's idea is a great approach. Unfortunately, the cutting pork is not resonating in DC right now. Of course amongst conservatives and outside the beltway, it's getting some traction, but not here. Couple of factors in play that affect TJ's proposal: There is little to no pressure on Congress inside DC to cut pork right now; the President has a tenuous relationship with the Senate and they are not going to want to be forced into an up or down vote; Congress uses the "disaster" excuse as convenient and an extreme reason to spend more money - like the Homeland Security pork bill a few years ago.
I think this is a rare opportunity that the Republican Congress cannot afford to miss. Ordinarily, the electoral "benefit" for cutting pork is near zero and the cost of increased spending is pretty small. As a result, the benefit of bringing a project home far outweighs any costs from voters upset about increased spending. Democrats don't pay a price for it (their party believes in government spending, after all) and Republicans are secure in the knowledge that they are running against Democrats, so they will likely get the vast majority of voters who care about spending anyhow.

Here is a situation, however, where the electoral benefit for cutting pork is potentially large. The rhetorical high ground -- giving up less worthwhile projects to pay for rebuilding the Gulf areas devastated by Katrina -- is extremely persuasive to voters in general. There are lots of projects that benefit small constituencies. Delay them. The price can be small, if members choose the wasted projects smartly. Here in NY, we have federal money going to pay for an art walk -- a nice gesture, but a purely local matter. We shouldn't take money out of the pockets of people in other states to pay for fancy sidewalks here in Rochester. Period. If the sidewalks are such a great investment, we should spend our own money. There are a ton of projects like this. Yes, there will be some screaming. But personally, I'd rather have the talking point that my member led the fight to cut hundreds of millions of wasteful government spending -- setting common-sense priorities during a national crisis.

Of course, I thought Republicans were a conservative party. It is a sad day for the Republican party when Nancy Pelosi starts to make more sense that Tom Delay.

Screw the moderate Republicans. They are always talking about sacrifice. Well, now is the time to put up or shut up. And don't give me any of this liberal b.s. about raising taxes instead. We are talking about PORK. Give away spending for projects. Bridges that go nowhere. Sidewalks that have no national purpose.

The President needs to lead. Maybe he could announce that in 30 days, he will propose $500 million in cuts, roughly equally distributed across all congressional districts ($1.2 million per district). You can tell me what the timeline should be (5 years?). Let members know that this proposal is going to be submitted and they can either offer suggestions as to what they would prefer be cut, or let the ax fall where it may. Of course, they could vote against it -- but I don't think I would want to do that if I were running for Congress.

Set the standard. Establish the goal. It can be done. It is all about having the will to do it.
Just a note:

$500 million in cuts is probably way to low. I just threw a number out there. You math guys can tell me what is achievable. I think we should strive for every dime of Katrina... which is closer to $100 billion. But I'd settle for $50 billion.
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