12 February 2009


Attempting to weed out pork barrel projects in any bill that passes through Congress is nothing more than window dressing. It is no more than a joke when it comes to the biggest spending ("Stimulus Package" - but the way it's supposed to stimulate the economy is through spending, so let's call it what it is whether we agree with it or not - for the record, I do) bill of all time. It is balm for those who don't understand the way things work in Washington, fodder for those who want to add to their stockpile of political capital and crack cocaine for the media who don't want to take the time to try and explain complex issues to their audience.

Congress, the House of Representatives more so than the Senate, but both houses engage in it, is powered by swaps. Congresswoman X wants federal money for school construction in her district. Congressman Y wants a new interstate highway spur to pass through his hometown. Both are worthy projects that will create jobs and infrastructure that will benefit their districts and add to the gross total of projects that will, eventually, be of benefit to us all.

How much does it really matter that one of X's biggest campaign contributors owns a construction company (or is a construction workers union), or that one of Y's is building a shopping mall right where that proposed highway might have an exit?

Now Congresswoman X doesn't really give a damn about Y's highway and vice versa. But she does need his vote to pass the bill that contains the pork that's going to get the money for schools in her district. And he needs hers.

That's the simple version. Sometimes it's a whole lot more complicated than that and involves a dozen or more members of Congress horse trading with each other to get what they want. Y doesn't want what X has to trade in the way of votes - she'd vote that way anyhow and he knows it - but he has been leaning on P to vote his way and he knows that X has something P wants, or X has something that W wants and W, in turn, has something for P, and so on and so on.

And that's what they're supposed to do. They're supposed to bring jobs and money and projects home to their districts, and they can't do it without all that horse trading around pet projects, aka "pork." That's what they were elected to do.

So far so good. But it gets screwy - in the House more than the Senate - because congressmen are always running for office. Always. They face the prospect of trying to get re-elected every two years. And it has become ridiculously expensive to run for Congress, even in small, backwater districts. So they are always trying to raise money. They never, ever, stop running for office or raising money to run for office. Not for one day of their congressional term.

The nature of the electoral process means that their most important constituents are the ones who contribute the most money to their campaigns. And those VIPs are the ones who own the construction companies, who develop the shopping malls, who finance the factories in China, and in a rapidly declining number of places they are occasionally unions. (And they are also groups of fanatics who get their dander up and raise a bunch of money.)

They aren't you and me. (Depending, I guess, on who you are reading this blog.) Sorry to tell you, but your one vote means a whole lot less than someone else's twenty-five, fifty or hundred thousand dollar campaign contribution. We're LIPs - less important people.

Way back when it was decided that the term of office in the House of Representatives should be two years, it sort of, kind of, made a little sense.

It was a whole lot cheaper to run for Congress. Almost any yahoo could wander around his Congressional District, knocking on doors, standing on packing crates to make speeches, handing out flyers, and if they were persistent they could manage to talk with almost every single voter - white men over 21 who owned property, when the Constitution was written - before election day. Rich guys, or guys with rich pals have always had an advantage, but it used to be less of one.

And, maybe even more importantly, our young country had suffered from the oppression of a clubby crowd of stodgy old gentry (the British Parliament) for many years. The idea of having two houses of Congress was that the lower house would be home to all the wild-eyed radicals, with the wacky new notions. They'd pass those, send them up to the more deliberative Senate, where calmer heads and common sense would prevail (tempered by the fact that they got six years to ruminate and pontificate without having to worry about getting re-elected) and the fresh, new crazy ideas would be rendered practical.

It's never worked quite as smoothly as planned, but it worked okay until it became so expensive to run for office.

The thing is, the people who have the most money to give are the people who are in charge of the big projects that want to pick the taxpayers pockets. The people who take the time and energy to raise the most cash, in both parties, are the ones with the biggest bones to pick, the most dogmatic political positions, the starry-eyed true believers or the nasty-ass vicious brutes.

So those people, the already rich and powerful or the crazy ones who cough up the coin, are the ones to who our representatives are most beholden. And congressmen need to hobnob with that crowd all the time, day in and day out. They seldom get to have so much as a cocktail with a regular, decent, hard-working, middle of the road regular person.

Now don't get me wrong, senators are always trying to raise money, too. It's even more expensive to run for most Senate seats than seats in the House. But they do get a period of three, sometimes four, years in which they can be somewhat casual about it. During that period they don't need to spend as much time sucking up to the fatcats and the batshit crazies in their political parties. They can do what they think is right, or at least spend some time pandering to the voters - who tend to be more centrist, down to earth and less greedy than the money-raisers.

So yeah, every single bill that ever comes out of Congress is going to be pork-laden and there is no way around that. That's how it works.

Is there anything that can be done about it?

I don't know. I don't think there is any realistic way that campaign finance reform is ever going to make it cheap enough to run for office that money won't shout so loud.

I think increasing the term of office for members of the House of Representatives to four years might help. Maybe limiting them to three, four year terms. And limiting senators to two, six year terms. That might help. After all, the president is limited to two terms, why not put some limits on Congress?

Perhaps culling earmarks out of other bills is a good idea. Why shouldn't amendments and addendums to bills be limited to those things that relate to the actual bill itself. Perhaps once a year there can be something called the "Congressional Spending Bill" and Congress can spend a while horsetrading all of its earmarks, finally sticking them all in one, gigantic pulled pork sandwich of a bill.

So far, though, I've seen nothing to dissuade me of the wisdom of a remark attributed to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), and I doubt I will in my lifetime.

"America has no distinctly criminal class, excepting, maybe, Congress."

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