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The federal deficit

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The administration is projecting a Federal deficit of $482 Billion next year. This is bigger than the entire Federal budget was back when I was in DC. For a more recent comparison, it's bigger than the current combined budgets of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

Naturally, each Presidential candidate's campaign is taking the opportunity to say how he will balance the budget, while his opponent will make the deficit worse.

A quick look at this year's veto overrides calls those claims into question. One override was a $100 Billion water projects bill that was almost entirely pork barrel expenditures - the first time congress overrode a veto by the current president. Another was a $300 Billion agriculture bill that included at least $100 Billion in obvious pork, quite possibly a lot more depending on what one considers to be pork. That's $400 Billion in vetoed expenditures right there, that congress insisted on spending anyway. The new president's vetos won't be any harder to override, so it's doubtful that the president alone can change the trend.

What could help is a little more responsibility in congress. Perhaps we need to pay attention to more than just the presidential election this fall.
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On July 30th, 2008 03:43 am (UTC), harrock commented:
If I were an optimist, I might hope that someone moving over from Congress would at least know the actors better, so might have more chance of cutting a Pork Reduction deal were he to put resources into it. But I'm not holding my breath.

The facts on pork seem pretty grim, though it has started to puzzle me from a strategy POV. The standard theory is that pork brings you votes (either directly or in the form of cash), but the pro-incumbent bias for Congressional elections is huge. Is pork really a significant factor? I suppose from time to time, a race gets close and the pork factor can put the incumbent over the top, but I suspect it's noise most of the time.

What I'm getting at is, aside from a few individual voters deciding to factor it into their voting decisions, what would you really have to do to change the standard practice? If I'm right, and pork is noise most of the time, then you might convince a rational incumbent not to do it, but the problem is that it doesn't cost them much. It costs less than horse-trading for votes on some other substantive issue, because there's a large enough voting bloc for pork that you really just have to go along to get along.

Not to mention, it's a tricky topic to hit incumbents on. If it's easy to portray the pork as a giveaway to some particular interest group, then it's an easy target; if it's properly dressed up as a giveaway to a town or city, then it's harder. Certainly a competent bill writer will do everything possible to dress it up, though as we see every day, there's no need to assume that they'll be competent.

Interest groups can succeed by hammering a one-dimensional issue and punishing everyone who crosses them, if they are leveraging enough money or votes. It may be demoralizing and ironic to conclude that reducing pork would require raising a pile of money to punish vulnerable incumbents who indulge in it, but I'm pretty sure that's where we're at.

I guess I can't rule out that public scrutiny can have a positive effect. We're still in the opening phases of seeing what the Internet can do for politics, and one thing I've heard of is crowdsourcing the task of scrutinizing all proposed legislation and alerting people who care about particular issues, so that riots can be scheduled before the actual votes go off. We could see some improvement from that.

I think that turning up the heat on individual players is a necessary part of any effective strategy, because heaping more scorn on Congress as a body, or even upon voting blocs, isn't effective--rock-bottom approval ratings for Congress don't keep incumbents from being re-elected en masse.
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