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Why Washington Can't Stop Its Spending Habits

Sunday, 24 Mar 2013 | 1:53 PM ET
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One congressman's recent campaign tagline was "I want to change Congress instead of having Congress change me."

It's a familiar promise aspiring or actual politicians make. So why do so many — Republicans or Democrats, left or right — ultimately become the very creatures of a DC habit they initially promised to replace, at least when it comes to pork and earmarks?

The answer isn't ideology—no matter how much Democrats and Republicans blame each other for the budgetary impasse. It's us.

In other words, pork isn't pork to voters who expect politicians to bring home the bacon.

Most congressmen and women are guilty of this to some degree. Here are some notable examples.

Paul Ryan: No thanks, but thanks!

Former GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan (R-WI) is widely seen to be—and often praised—as a budget hawk, reflexively opposed to government spending in many forms.

He's also a congressman who has lobbied for tens of millions of dollars in federal aid for his constituents and city officials.

Some of these include—perhaps surprisingly—an expansion of food stamps, grants to invest in green technology, and other stimulus money.

The Associated Press reviewed almost 9,000 pages of correspondence in the form of congressional letters between Ryan's office and federal agencies. For the most part, what Ryan's constituents wanted, Ryan's constituents got.

Much of what Ryan railed against during his rallies, like loan guarantees for green energy companies and alternative fuels, was exactly the types of loans he asked for in his own district.

The AP also found that Ryan told federal regulators that cutting certain grants in his district would be "economically devastating."

Ryan's spokesman at the time, Brendan Buck, said: "Part of being a congressman is vouching for constituents and helping them navigate the federal bureaucracy when asked."

Iowa (and Other Farm States) Need YOU, the Taxpayer!

Another frequent target for budget cutting is farm subsidies. Though apparently not if you represent a farm district.

The first congressional district in Iowa (represented by Democrat Bruce Braley since 2006) got $2.63 billion in USDA subsidies for farms between 1995-2011.

On Braley's web site there's explanation of some of the ways the congressman hoped to cut spending, written in early 2012, including:

"I've worked to cut down on excessive defense contracts to firms like Blackwater and Halliburton, which have wasted billions of dollars. Finally, in February 2011, I supported nearly $450 billion in cuts to federal spending."

(See Complete Farm Subsidy Database)

A chart provided by Braley's spokesman broke down the proposal in more detail. Cuts to defense spending (like eliminating the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund and cutting 3.5 percent from the Pentagon and Homeland Security)? Of course! Cuts to farm subsidies? Sorta.

The congressman did support "prohibiting funds from being used to make farm commodity payments to people or entities in excess of $250,000." The savings here were listed as being about $100 million.

That's a drop in the bucket of the $6 billion to $16 billion in commodity program payments made to farmers annually between 1999 and 2009, according to the USDA.

(The USDA says payments are mostly concentrated among certain types of farms, and fewer than 30 percent actually get payments in a typical year.)

Fellow Iowa Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack saw his district get $48.2 million in farming subsidies in 2011. (Loebsack also voted to end oil and gas exploration subsidies in January of 2007, incidentally.)

Both Loebsack and Braley support cuts to defense spending, once considered a sacred cow in Washington.

Your Pork—My Sacred Cow

In some districts, congressional "pork" is vital to economic health.

The 2010 congressional race in Virginia's 2nd District, for example, centered around one key issue.

In 2009, the Navy had former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' support to move one of five aircraft carriers from Norfolk, Va., to Mayport, Fla.

Norfolk is home to the world's largest naval base, and the military is a huge employer. Figures from 2010 showed that DOD spending had nearly doubled in the past decade and accounted for 40 percent of the regional economy.

Republican Scott Rigell beat Democratic incumbent Glenn Nye in the race, promising to do everything he could to keep the carriers in Norfolk.

The Navy argued that the move was necessary in order to reduce the risk of a catastrophic attack and to lessen the potential impact from natural disasters in areas like Norfolk where the fleet is concentrated.

Members of Congress and Senators representing Virginia, though, were not on board.

Officials in Virginia said moving the Norfolk-based carrier would drain the Hampton Roads economy of about $600 million per year, eliminating over 10,000 jobs.

Florida representatives, on the other hand, welcomed the move, which would boost the Jacksonville area's ship-repair industrial base. (The two sides ultimately compromised, deciding to move three ships instead.)

Lesson: When cutting government spending means taking on local sacred cows, don't expect most politicians, no matter what their party or stated ideological posture, to put their own jobs at risk.

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