legislative lowdown

COMMENTARY

legislative lowdown

Oct 25th, 2004 3 min read

Can you get re-elected without pork?

Conventional wisdom holds that local highway projects and targeted federal grants are essential elements of any incumbent's reelection strategy. Indeed, small-government conservatives routinely face pressure from their colleagues and special interests to help expand federal programs for this very reason.

But Congress ended the 2004 fiscal year having completed work on only four of the 13 annual appropriations bills. Once again, it passed a "continuing resolution" to give lawmakers additional time to agree upon the final funding levels for the fiscal year which started October 1. Lawmakers also punted the stalled reauthorization of federal highway programs into next year by extending current law for eight more months.

This means members of Congress will face voters without the presumed political benefit of being able to boast of having delivered numerous special projects "earmarked" to their districts that normally grace appropriations bills and other pieces of legislation.

Yet the political calculations that cause otherwise rational members to pursue these projects appear to be misplaced. Two years ago, when a previous round of pork-barrel goodies was similarly delayed, not one incumbent suffered. In fact, the incumbent retention rate in 2002 was one of the highest ever. A post-election poll commissioned by the United Seniors Association found that, by a margin of 52% to 42%, voters said a candidate's positions on major national issues was more important in deciding for whom to vote than his "ability to do things that help people in the congressional district."

In spite of this, many members of Congress continue to believe in the political magic of pork. Pennsylvania Democrat Tim Holden, who faces a difficult reelection race, maintains his constituents will give him credit for the local highway projects that were included in the version of the bill the House passed last spring even though final approval is unlikely until well after Election Day. New York Republican Tom Reynolds, who chairs the National Republican Campaign Committee, agrees, noting: "Our guys got the money. It's in there, and it's just a matter of passing a bill." But Reynolds hastens to add: "If there [are] no projects, it doesn't hurt any one sitting member."

If all politics is not local, as the 2002 elections and subsequent polling suggest, the political rationale for these projects collapses with it. And, while all pork spending amounts to barely 2% of the federal budget, the behavior it engenders may lead to the legislative equivalent of that first broken window in a neighborhood which, if allowed to remain broken, sends a signal to potential predators that no one cares and no one is in charge.

The predators here, of course, are the forces in Washington with an insatiable appetite for bigger and bigger government. Constituents send their elected officials to Washington expecting them to be statesmen, not city councilmen.

Evaluating the 108th Congress: With the 108th Congress all but history, it is not too early to review its record and draw some conclusions as to its overall ideological tendencies. A thorough review of hundreds of roll-call votes in the House and Senate suggests a nuanced but nevertheless important conclusion. On a wide range of issues that force lawmakers to take a stand either for or against free markets, the pundits' catch-all description of a "Red America/Blue America" divide rings true. Democrats and Republican lawmakers see the world in fundamentally different ways. On roll-call votes relating to federal spending and the overall size and scope of government, however, the forces of big government find support on both sides of the aisle and, sadly, reign supreme.

Free Enterprise: We selected 11 floor votes in the House and 10 in the Senate where lawmakers faced a clear choice between free markets and government intervention in policy areas such as taxes, the environment, the workplace, energy, and healthcare. In the House, a narrow majority of members (222 in all) took the free-market position most of the time, while 213 sided consistently with the big-government alternative. In the Senate, 48 senators consistently embraced free markets and lower tax burdens while 49 preferred higher taxes and heavy doses of government economic control. Significantly, the ideological divide is also a partisan one. There are virtually no free-enterprise Democrats, and very few interventionist Republicans. And, unlike what we found on spending issues, virtually every lawmaker falls easily into either the "saints" or "sinners" category. Only three senators and fewer than 10% of House members defy easy labeling.

Spending: The story line with respect to spending issues differs dramatically, which suggests that limiting the federal government's growth will again pose the greatest challenge for conservatives on and off Capitol Hill in the 109th Congress. On 11 House floor votes where members were asked to add billions to already bloated areas of federal spending--e.g., education, childcare, highways, health research, veterans programs and prescription-drug coverage for seniors--a mere 47 House members and only 26 senators consistently embrace the small-government alternative. The big-government forces enjoyed the steady support of absolute majorities of "sinners" in both the House (224) and the Senate (51).

Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Human Events

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