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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Earmarks and “Small Ball”

There have been some amusing reports lately about earmark-bashing Republicans in Congress themselves securing earmarks. But they represent something more important than just an example of GOP hypocrisy producing a “gotcha” moment for Democrats.
Mark Schmitt gets at the broader issues in a fine TAPPED post today:

Republicans are far more dependent than Democrats on their ability to take some credit for federally funded projects. In the world with earmarks, Lindsay Graham is able to stand against the president on stimulus, on the budget, on Iraq, on health care. And then he’s able to go home, cut a ribbon, get his picture in the paper, and tell everyone that he delivered the money for the new Myrtle Beach Convention Center.
But in a world without earmarks, what does Lindsay Graham bring home? Just words, and great stories about how he fought bravely against health care and economic stimulus.

Schmitt goes on to describe earmarks as an example of what he calls congressional “small ball,” something Members of Congress can do to distinguish themselves in an atmosphere where they have no real influence over big policy decisions, which are, in any event, largely resolved on party-line votes. And as he suggests, Republicans who are in the minority in particular need “small ball” accomplishments to give themselves something positive to talk about in their re-election campaigns, aside from their negative ranting against godless big-government liberals. Indeed, the implicit message a lot of Republican pols send to voters is: “I hate government and government programs just like you do, but by God, until we get rid of them, I’m going to make sure we get our piece of the pie.”
But I think the Republican “small ball” habit goes well beyond earmarks, and when Republicans are actually in power at any level of government, has an impact that is by no means “small.”
One example common at the state level, particularly in the South, is the strong tendency of Republican (and alas, some Democratic) governors to spend a lot of time throwing taxpayer dollars into “megadeals” to secure large industrial investments, most famously foreign auto plants. Such activities sure seem like active governing; they have the same kind of tangible political payoff as earmarks; and moreoever, they can be sold to conservative voters as giving the private sector back the tax payments and control they ought to have anyway. That they also tend to directly and indirectly undermine the kind of “liberal” public investments and policies that are most helpful for long-range economic development strategies is of no concern to most Republican politicians, if they don’t consider it an added bonus. As with those congressional pols who vote against every budget, every program, and every appropriations bill while raking off earmarks, conservative leaders who give away the state revenue base for years to come in order to “deliver jobs” are the position of deploring “pork” while living off the bacon.
Moreover, at an even deeper level, conservative ideology in a competitive political environment almost invariably produces this sort of ostensibly self-contradictory behavior, and with it a great deal of predictable corruption. It’s pretty simple, really: if you don’t believe in the missions of government programs and agencies, but don’t have the guts or the ability to get rid of them altogether, then what do you do with them? Unless you have an unusual degree of integrity, you turn them into patronage and vote-buying systems.
That was a big part of the story of the Bush-DeLay Era of Republican-dominated politics in this decade, and also a source of great confusion in interpreting it. A lot of progressives wasted time arguing about whether it was “ideology” or “incompetence” that caused the disasters of this era. It was both, because the ideology encouraged the incompetence and corruption, from New Orleans to Baghdad and in every corner of Washington. And a lot of conservatives have deluded themselves that Bush and company were “moderates” or “liberals,” when they were really just conservatives who never convinced the public to support massive reductions in government, and then convinced themselves that using government to build a political machine was the next best thing.
To put it another way, when you fundamentally think government spending is a waste of money, then when you are given power over it, it’s not that surprising that you do your best to waste it for your own political benefit, rationalizing the hypocrisy as the shortest path available to that great gettin’ up morning when you have total power and can abolish all those terrible programs once and for all.
Giving conservatives total power would undoubtedly be a horrible disaster for this country. But it’s important to understand that giving them some power, or a lot of power that is limited by the inherent unpopularity of their ultimate goals, is going to help produce precisely the kind of wasteful and corrupt government they claim to deplore. And yes, they’ll protest it all the way to the next earmark announcement or auto plant ground-breaking.

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