With members of Congress home for summer recess, the smoke is still clearing over the smoldering ruins of what's left to fiscal restraint and the federal budget. Even a Republican-controlled Congress can't seem to resist spending Americans' tax dollars. The incentive for each district representative and GOP leaders to bring home the bacon is too tempting to resist.
When Democrats were in control of Congress until 1994, Republicans routinely accused Democrats of spending like drunken sailors on a Saturday night binge. But now that the Republicans are in control of the cookie jar, look at the results.
* $277 million in road projects for the district of Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.
* $722 million in projects for Kern County, home of powerful House Ways and Means Chairman Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, nearly $1,000 per person.
* $550 million for petroleum-drilling research in House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's home turf in Texas.
* Rep. Don Young from Alaska, known in certain circles as the "King of Pork," scored big. As chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, he steered $231 million for a bridge near Anchorage called the "bridge to nowhere," and $223 million for another bridge connecting the tiny village of Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with 50 inhabitants.
As reported by The Washington Post, the highway bill is the most expensive public works legislation in U.S. history, complete with 6,376 earmarked projects. Congress passed transportation and energy bills that busted cost limits established by President Bush. A massive water projects bill authorized spending that would exceed current levels by 173 percent. And let's not even mention the increases in the defense budget, with no end in sight.
It's not for nothing that the Cato Institute has called the GOP the Grand Old Spending Party.
"If you look at fiscal conservatism these days, it's in a sorry state," said Rep. Jeff Flake, (R-Ariz.) "Republicans don't even pretend anymore."
But Congressman Flake was nearly alone in his sentiment. He was one of only eight out of 435 House Members to vote against the $286.5 billion transportation bill that was passed the day before the recess. Democrats voted for it en masse as well. Yes, this pork was greased on both sides.
We could just blame it on human nature, or politicians' instinct for re-election, or both. But that would be too simplistic. The fact is, the very foundation of our political system, the single-seat, winner-take-all district, and the incentives of how you win elections and hold power in this system, are what drive both Republicans and Democrats to spend like there's no tomorrow.
As a point of comparison, if we used an at-large election system instead of single-seat districts to elect the U.S. House, pork barrel incentives would be greatly diminished. Since representation wouldn't be so geography-based, neither would appropriations.
But with winner-take-all fiefdoms as the basis of our republic, there is tremendous incentive to grab federal dollars for your district. Even once-fiscal conservative Republicans can't resist the temptations of winner-take-all pork.
In addition, election strategies, especially in close races, lend themselves to giving away the store. When you are in control of the cookie jar, dispensing the cookies district-by-district becomes an enormously enticing way to retain political control.
With neither Democrats nor Republicans willing to stop the spending or play much of a watchdog role, there's no one to check the bouts of excess.
Compare this to the state of Vermont, where a third party called the Progressive Party holds six seats in the state legislature. One of their legislative roles has been to act as watchdog, exposing bad policies that both Democrats and Republicans support. In recent years that has included a bipartisan corporate welfare tax credit program that was so wasteful that even The Wall Street Journal wrote an article criticizing it.
Lacking a third party watchdog at the federal level, and with the winner-take-all system offering powerful incentives for pork barrel gluttony, budgetary waste has been impossible to stop. Now, like the Democrats before them, the GOP fire-breathers--who once wore "Cut Spending First" pins and promised in the 1995 Contract With America to eliminate more than 200 programs--pile on their pet projects loaded with goodies that translate into jobs and boondoggles for their congressional districts.
The real losers are American taxpayers. Winner-take-all politics have made losers of us all. It's time to explore getting rid of our district-based electoral system before Congress spends the nation into bankruptcy.
This article also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Copyright 2005, The San Diego Union Tribune