12.23.09

Pass the Christmas Pork, Please

As Senator Nelson comes under increasing fire for a sweetheart deal, Lee Siegel asks: What’s wrong with a little grease in exchange for a vote?

The adolescent outrage over the concessions Harry Reid made to Ben Nelson to win the latter’s vote for heath-care reform—and over all the “pork” packed into the bill in general—reminded me of an article I read just over a year ago.

Last October, Newsweek published a “My Turn” essay by the mayor of Ketchikan, the Alaskan town that had been slated to receive federal money for the “bridge to nowhere.” You remember. It was a project that became symbolic of the hated practice of “earmarks,” “pork-barrel” projects inserted into pending legislation by members of Congress seeking money for their constituents.

Pork—would the practice be as hateful if it was called “organic chicken”?—is also how elected representatives directly respond to their constituents’ needs.

Dave Kiffer, Ketchikan’s mayor, might have been the mayor of a small town considered “nowhere,” but he had some refreshingly practical things to say about democratic politics. (Confession: My wife, Christina Gillham, a Newsweek editor at the time, accepted and edited Kiffer’s essay.) “Earmarks,” Kiffer wrote, “were once considered a good way for elected representatives to meet the needs of their communities. The federal bureaucracy could not move fast enough or act specifically enough to meet those needs, whereas a targeted earmark could. But since then earmarks have become synonymous with the worst excesses of federal spending, the pork-barrel projects that bloat our budget, compound our deficit and raise our taxes. Earmarks actually make up less than 1 percent of the federal budget, but they are the political equivalent of a big, slow softball floating toward the plate.”

Earmarks actually make up less than 1 percent of the federal budget. Well, what do you know. The reason earmarks don’t eat up a lot of the budget is because they use existing funds, they don’t create the need for new ones. But outrage is the American aphrodisiac. Enraged by little Ketchikan’s effort to survive along democratic lines, everyone began crying, “Earmarks! Earmarks!” the way hysterics in the 1950s once cried “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!”

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In the end, Sarah Palin, then-governor of Alaska, bravely killed the project to prove her anti-earmarks bona fides. The result, as Kiffer wrote, was to rob his town of much-needed jobs, and block Ketchikan’s efforts ”to transform itself from a resource-based economy into a service economy.” An afflicted community lost the opportunity to become healthy again.

We used to respond to American democracy’s idiosyncracies with rueful yet robust laughter. When about half a century ago, Senator Everett Dirksen referred to the tendency of federal spending to quickly become uncontrollable and quipped, “A billion here, and a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money,” people admired his frank wit. Now a thousand editorialists would gravely nod their heads, point fingers, issue denunciations, and thunder about What Should Be Done.

But worrying about how to fix the practice of earmarks is like worrying about how to make a Rube Goldberg contraption more efficient. It is in the nature of both to work dysfunctionally. In the end, the little ball drops into the cup. In the end, some marginalized community or group of people gets a leg up.

Yes, yes, earmarks and pork are sometimes ways for politicians pay back financial supporters and to win future contributions; they are, sometimes, outright bribes or grateful goodies. And there is gambling in Rick’s American Café! Everyone who has studied civics in high school knows the corrupt side of pork. But pork—would the practice be as hateful if it was called “organic chicken”?—is also how elected representatives directly respond to their constituents’ needs. Nelson got the federal government to pay all of Nebraska’s share of Medicaid to the tune of $100 million. More power to him. At a time when the states are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, Nebraska has more money to pay for unemployment benefits, create jobs, or subsidize health care for the middle class. And it won’t cost the American taxpayer one penny more. The money is already there.

The Wall Street Journal worried that “the other states will have to get theirs later”—in other words, the new health-care bill’s Medicaid expansion will eventually become a federal obligation that will relieve the faltering states of the burden. Well, that would be nice.

What other horrors have the country’s politicians brought into our lives by means of the legislative deformity known as “earmarks”? Well, Florida Senator Bill Nelson won for his sick and elderly constituents protection against cuts in Medicare home-assistance. Chris Dodd got one of his communities a new hospital. Louisiana, which has some of the most chronically poor people in the country, got $300 million in Medicaid subsidies. Vermont got $10 million for community health centers. Montana got Medicare coverage for people living near an asbestos Superfund site. Montana, the Dakotas, and Wyoming will receive money for doctors and hospitals living in rural areas.

The list of evil and corrupt pork-barrel recipients goes on and on.

Again, none of this money will come from new or higher taxes. The money for these concessions is already in the bill. It’s true that some states won concessions that other states did not: Senators from Nebraska and Michigan, for example, got certain nonprofit health-insurance companies exempted from new fees. But the Wall Street Journal is right. Such inequitableness will eventually be corrected. Sooner or later, other companies will earn the same exemption, meaning lower premiums across the board. Anyone who says he knows what effect this will have on the tax code is a clairvoyant. No one knows what effect it will have.

President Obama is playing hardball, as—to many people’s relief—he should. The senators wringing concessions from Reid are also playing hardball—to the relief of their constituents. It’s called democracy, which is imperfect, raucous, malodorous and, by virtue of the very imbalances it causes, ensures that before long, countervailing pressures will correct the imbalance. When Lindsey Graham accuses Obama of practicing “seedy Chicago politics,” he is being redundant three times. What’s known as “Chicago politics” is actually democratic politics—which, by its nature, is “seedy.”

How quickly our politicians condemn the vitality of American democracy as a form of corruption whenever the democratic process fails to deliver to them what they want. When they win, however, they praisefully chant “Only in America!” The hallmark of European fascism, its most powerful argument, was democracy’s disheartening patterns of haggling, horse-trading, and compromise. The fascists pretended that politics could be more perfect than the egos that practice it. It’s a dangerous illusion—but one that seems to have more and more American supporters, on both sides of the aisle, every day.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.