The Real Problem With “Pork”

Readers will recall that I’m a critic of critics of “pork” and “earmarks.” For one thing, the potential for saving serious budgetary money by cutting these things is routinely overstated by anti-pork crusaders. What’s more, the definition of “pork” is inherently contestable. As long as you have a legislature in which people represent well-defined (and often relatively small) geographical constituencies, one man’s pork is going to be another man’s infrastructure. And last, an aversion to small-scale bribing of legislators via pork may simply push legislative leaders to make even more damaging policy decisions in order to get people on board with bills.

That said, there are some real problems with pork, well-illustrated by Jason Zengerle’s piece on the town that Jack Murtha built:

From his perch on the House Appropriations Committee, Murtha had, over the years, directed $2 billion in federal spending to his district. … “I’m certainly a Republican … and I don’t think Mr. Murtha and I would agree on everything,” Mark Pasquerilla, a Johnstown businessman who attended the fundraiser, later told me. But “on an economic-development level, he delivers.” In steel’s place, Murtha had become Johnstown’s economic engine, keeping it afloat with a steady stream of government cash that flowed to the city’s private businesses, its hospitals, even its airport — which, like so many things in Johnstown, now bore his name. Murtha was not just Johnstown’s congressman; he was its savior.

The problem here is that Murtha can’t stay in congress forever. So the river of pork will dry up at some point. And then the necessary adjustments will prove to have been delayed, rather than actually avoided. But not only will a lot of federal resources have been squandered on this unsustainable model, those resources will have driven an even larger expenditure of state, local, and private resources on investments based on the pork flow. Ultimately the quantity of taxpayer dollars squandered on a Murtha-based economy is going to be dwarfed by the amount of money Johnstown’s own residents plowed, over the years, into investments related to a local economy that’s going to be teetering on the brink of collapse when Murtha loses his juice. $2 billion for a town located in a county that only contains 60,000 households is an awful lot of money that could have been used to help people get a new start someplace else where there were more job and business opportunities.