Saturday, December 29, 2007

The One-Man Interest Group Behind Pork

Cap'n Ed points to a story that he figures ought to get the Progressives on board with an anti-pork campaign: a Republican congressman who got the feds to pay for a new gas station in his district. All because 25 years ago he almost ran out of gas at that intersection. Oh yeah- and also because he wanted to have a travel plaza named after him. Libby is quick to answer the Captain's call. I'm a libertarian so of course I was already on board (does that make this a "tri-partisan" effort?).

This whole story actually sums up the problem with earmarks and Congressional appropriations beautifully. This particular earmark was probably not lobbied for by Big Oil; indeed, the fuel industry had clearly decided that there was insufficient demand to warrant a gas station - much less an entire travel plaza - in this area. If they had, it's not exactly as if they're lacking in resources to pay to build one.

One of the reasons the American system of government has historically worked so well is in large part that it does a terrific job of mitigating the effects of "factions" (ie, interest groups), particularly with its system of federalism and protection of minority rights from the tyranny of the majority. The trouble with earmarks, though, is that they get around these protections. Indeed, what earmarks accomplish is the ability of an interest group of one (ie, the politician) to serve his interests at the expense of all other interests- largely without having to convince anyone else that his interest benefits them as well. This isn't tyranny of the majority- it's tyranny of the extreme minority.

The sole purpose of earmarks is often just to benefit the individual politician's chances at re-election and/or creating a legacy (see, e.g., the entire state of Bobby Byrd, err, West Virginia). Even where the earmark is intended to benefit a particular interest group, the earmarking process means that the interest group need only convince one legislator that the earmark is in the legislator's interest to achieve the interest group's goal. Since all sorts of other interest groups are doing the same exact thing with other legislators, and since all the earmarks are passed together as if they were one, no one interest group ordinarily need fear getting removed from the bill.

In essence, earmarks undermine the Madisonian principles of mitigating the effects of faction by reducing the number of factions/interest groups from infinite all the way down to 535 interest groups of one, almost none of which are conflicting interests- no one interest necessarily prevents the achievement of any other interest. All that is necessary for each of these interest groups of one to succeed is for them to have sufficient power and influence to have input into the final appropriations bill.

All this, by the way, reminds me of a parable of how another interest group of one continues to have an effect on the American tax code. Back in the 1980s, Dan Rostenkowski was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He had two daughters who worked for United Airlines, which meant that he was allowed to fly for free. But this was considered a taxable fringe benefit since only free travel by children and spouses of travel employees was tax-exempt. So Rostenkowski decided to do something about this- after all, why should he have to pay taxes on his many free flights? And so Rostenkowski carved out an exemption for parents of airline workers so that they didn't need to include free travel on airlines as taxable income. Parents of bus and train employees who got similar benefits, however, continued to have to report their free travel as income to the IRS. This specific exemption remains in place in section 132(h) of the Internal Revenue Code.