Pork Nation

The political media's frenzy over earmarks sort of misses the point

The recent debate over earmarks in the spending bill signed today by Barack Obama has politicians and the national media twisting the story of pork into a bacon explosion. Earmarks are wasteful, or corrupt; the Democrats are to blame, or the Republicans are. John McCain took to Twitter to rail against humorous-sounding projects like “$819,000 for catfish genetics research in Alabama” and “$150,000 for lobster research.” Maureen Dowd gleefully recounted some of McCain’s top offenders (grapes, beavers, gang tattoos) and criticized the president for “accepting the status quo by signing a budget festooned with pork.”

And, MoDo and McCain aren’t wrong. The practice of earmarks is subject to little oversight, and, as the vice-president of Taxpayers for Common Sense put it, “It’s a political-patronage system rather than a meritocracy.” But the anti-earmark case being made in the national media seems to focus less on these objections and more on the assumption that all pork is bad and that all silly-sounding projects—the Hungry Horse Project, actually a dam and reservoir, and lobster research, an American foodstuff and local industry in Maine—are inherently wasteful.

Slamming earmarks based on the perceived invalidity of the projects they’re going to fund is a great tactic for political grandstanders eager to build reformist reputations. But it’s a weak move for the media. Not every earmark is a Bridge to Nowhere; on the local level, most of these derided individual projects, like the pig-odor study, tend to make sense.

Blogger Brendan Skwire has been fact checking the earmarks that McCain scoffed at (and arguing with the Times about Dowd’s column while he’s at it). He found some real, serious projects. For example, he explained the so-called pork behind a proposed tattoo removal program for former gang members by calling the office of the congressman who proposed it: “The majority of the funds go for a new laser tattoo removal tool, which is necessary because the current tool is 10 years old and obsolete. The program includes 20 doctors and several clinicians, all of who donate their services to help reformed gang members leave the past behind and become law-abiding, productive citizens. The program has 3 paid positions: if funded, the part-time career counselor will become full time; a program coordinator will be hired, and a part-time administrator will be hired.” Doesn’t sound so porky now.

Local outlets tend to realize this. The Massachusetts Herald News listed some of the many projects that would be funded as a result of the earmarks that Barney Frank directed toward his district, like sewer improvements, and a renewable energy center researching “technology that uses ocean currents for energy generation.” “I am very proud of the earmarks that I have sought for the fourth district,” the congressman said. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution listed the earmarks coming to Georgia, “millions of dollars for improving Georgia roads, sewer systems and airports—including $1.8 million for environmental infrastructure in Atlanta and $1.3 million for clean fuel buses and facilities for MARTA,” without the partisan acrimony common in the national news.

And yet, in an article today in The New York Times, President Obama characterizes them as “projects with ‘no legitimate public purpose’”—an assertion that the Times lets pass without comment. And while The Washington Post was more charitable in its definition, calling earmarks projects “that are designated by individual legislators for their states or districts,” it nevertheless said that they “symbolize the kind of wasteful government spending that [Obama] attacked while campaigning for president.”

Really? The $7.7 billion in earmarks represent 1.87 percent of the overall cost of the bill, and an incalculably small part of overall government spending, a point The Washington Post’s Ben Pershing made yesterday:

Earmarks definitely do get a disproportionately large amount of press coverage, given the relatively small sliver of federal spending they represent. I bet if you asked the average voter how much of federal spending is earmarked, they would guess a number a lot higher than it actually is. Which I suppose is the fault of us in the political press for doing a poor job explaining.

The idea underneath this ongoing discussion is the need for budgetary reform, which is inarguably necessary. But, the serial bloviating that accompanies the earmark debate is hardly an honest attempt at reform. As Time’s Michael Grunwald put it:

Earmarks were made for hypocrisy; they’re always reprehensible when they’re in someone else’s district. But despite all the Beltway hyperventilation, earmarks are not really a problem. Their exponential growth is a symptom of the larger problem of wasteful spending, but blaming the earmark process for wasteful spending is like blaming the Internet for porn. It is just a convenient delivery device, and it can have good uses as well as frivolous ones.

We’ve heard this story before. As The Nation’s John Nichols pointed out in 2007, “it has become fashionable to gripe about earmarks of a few hundred thousand dollars to pay for small-town museums and urban parks.” Writing in the American Thinker, Rick Moran said that “earmarks were a problem going back in the 1980’s.” Yet with every budget, the earmark debate is new again, because it is allows politicians to make a half-hearted stand for reform. But annual earmark anger hasn’t led to change in the last thirty years, and the Washington press corps can’t be naive enough to believe it will this time around. And they shouldn’t expect their audience to believe it, either.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.