Signs of a new political culture abound. Call it the era of “reverse pork barrel.”
In the past, lawmakers wore federal projects delivered to their districts as a badge of honor. Moreover, they viewed voting for spending cuts as politically risky. About fifteen years ago, two well-respected political columnists, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, cautioned that Democrats might pay a steep political price if they joined with Republicans in a deficit-cutting drive. “The danger here will be that when the time comes, that support in the polls will prove illusory as voters are faced with the actual costs of the pain,” they wrote in a 1995 piece in the Baltimore Sun.
Not today. Now, both attitudes have transformed.
Fewer lawmakers boast about pork, and voting to reduce the size of government has morphed from the political kiss of death to a feather in the reelection rally cap.
Consider these indicators.
In March, Gallup reported that Americans now believe the federal budget deficit is the most important “future problem,” the first time this fiscal concern topped the survey organization’s list of prospective worries. In June, “federal government debt” tied with terrorism when Gallup asked about perceived threats to U.S. future wellbeing.
These concerns are also growing over time. An AP-GfK survey in August found that 54 percent of Americans now say they are “very worried about” federal spending and debt, compared to only 42 percent two years ago.
Rasmussen reported that likely voters – by a 25-point margin (58-25 percent) – prefer a candidate that would work to cut federal spending compared to one that makes sure their district gets its fair share.
Evidence of this shift in thinking translates to political elites in Washington as well. Both House and Senate Republicans will adopt new party rules banning earmarks in appropriations bills. Last week, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he switched his long-held opposition to the earmark ban.
Moreover, House Republican leadership aides I talked to this past week report a lower level of interest in lawmakers even serving on the Appropriations panel – the committee normally responsible for producing legislation with earmarks. “In a period of time when we’re talking about cutting spending, serving on the committee is just not as attractive as it used to be.”
All of these signs are indicators of the new political culture of reverse pork barrel. It’s a different way of thinking about cutting spending and the political implications of doing so.
To see how much thinking has changed, it’s instructive to look back at how scholars used to write about Congress and doling out money.
In 1974 Stanford political scientist John Ferejohn published a book called Pork Barrel Politics, one of the most influential volumes written on the subject over the last several decades. Ferejohn’s work spawned a host of other publications and research projects examining if and how politicians used federal purse strings to advance their own electoral fortunes. His book accurately described the old culture of spending surrounding the annual public works bill:
Members of the presidency, congressional opponents, and even some congressional supporters have referred to this bill privately as a pork barrel, a product of logrolling, a "Christmas tree" bill, and a boondoggle for certain powerful members of both houses. Yet each year a bill that looks very much like the one that passed the year before appears in the Congress and is passed without much general debate or comment on its propriety, though with considerable discussion of individual projects. The result is that more cement is poured, more rivers are dammed, and more streams are straightened. And everyone knows that it will all be about the same next year.
But times have changed. Many in Congress are just as likely to boast about how they opposed pork spending than claim credit for a line item for a new bio-diesel project.
A number of factors contributed to the dawning of the new culture of reverse pork barrel. A massive amount of new spending following 9/11 was one factor. Democrats in Congress and President Obama accelerating the spree between 2008-2010 also helped change people’s thinking. More transparency and media coverage of congressional operations made it harder to keep pork barrel spending secret. Republican gains in Congress in 2010 demonstrated that campaigning on an anti-spending platform was not politically risky after all.
Some might argue that things have not changed that much. Once lawmakers confront the hard realities of specific spending cuts – as opposed to general happy talk about fiscal discipline – the political costs will rise.
We’ll see. But I’m betting that lawmakers traveling in the new reverse pork-barrel culture will find fewer sacred cows in their path to fiscal sanity.