Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Biting the hand that elects you

When voters were asked recently by the Pew Research Center what considerations would most influence their choice of congressman in the fall, the most popular response by far (at 53 percent) was whether the candidate "has a record of bringing government projects and money to your district." 

This is not news to anyone who has ever had the tedious job of reading the gaseous miasma of press releases belched forth by the offices of 435 congressmen and 100 senators. Indistinguishable by party, time, or place, they always began exactly the same:

"Congressman [fill in the blank] today announced that [fill in the blank local project of no conceivable significance to the nation as a whole] has been awarded $[fill in the blank] million in federal funding . . ." 

This perennial exercise in self-publicity by a congressman eager to burnish his bringing-home-the-bacon credentials starts to become awkward, however, when the leaders of the self-congratulating congressman's own party — and sometimes even the very self-same congressman himself — are simultaneously railing against the evils of Big Government, Washington pork barrelling, earmark spending, and out-of-control Federal deficits.

The last time the Republican Party found itself in this intellectually nuanced spot was (no small coincidence) the last time they faced a Democratic president in the White House. Then it was Bill Clinton, who (no small irony) would go on to become the first president in 30 years to balance a budget — and who when he left office in 2001 had delivered three years in a row of budget surpluses and placed spending and revenues on a path to pay off the entire net Federal debt by 2009.

But back in 1995 the Republicans who swept into office in the "Gingrich revolution" were sure they had a great issue in railing against the evils of deficit spending. Their outrage had been curiously silent while Reagan and Bush I quadrupled the debt, and of course for the eight years of Bush II they again succumbed to a mass epidemic of mutism regarding the unprecedented deficits racked up by $1.3 trillion in Bush tax cuts targeted at the wealthiest. But Inauguration Day 2009 had barely come and gone before the Capitol South Metro station in Washington was plastered with advertising posters on every vertical (and even some horizontal) surfaces purchased by the GOP to terrify visiting tourists with vivid depictions of the astronomical trillions in debt that will crush our children as flat as flounders.

The schizophrenic requirement to denounce government spending in general while taking credit for it in the particular has led to some wonderful moments. Last year, one Republican congressman even managed to denounce the "Democrats' massive spending bill for pet projects" on the same day he sent out a press release taking credit for spending for pet projects in his own district that was included in the bill. My favorite insight into the psychology of the human mind that makes such thinking possible was provided during the Speaker Gingrich years, when I was a writer at U.S. News & World Report. My friend and colleague Lew Lord, who was from Natchez, Mississippi, came back from one visit home and reported the following conversation he had had with a nice southern Republican lady at a dinner he had attended. The nice southern Republican lady had been going on at some length about the terrible out-of-control government spending in Washington. She then began saying how urgently the town needed Federal help to shore up the bluff along the Mississippi River. (They would eventually get about $25 million for it.) As I recall Lew's account, the ensuing dialogue went something like this:

Lew: Uh, isn't there something maybe a little inconsistent about wanting to get so much Federal money for Natchez when we also need to cut government spending?
Nice Southern Republican Lady (perplexed by such a novel juxtaposition of ideas): But . . . we've got to save the bluff . . . !

To those of you who revel in political hypocrisy as much as I do, it's probably no surprise where this is heading. Here's a chart I produced using data from the nonpartisan Tax Foundation and the election results from 2008, showing an excellent correlation between states that vote Republican and states that receive more in Federal spending than they pay in Federal taxes. The vertical axis is the ratio of Federal dollars received to dollars paid in Federal taxes; each dot represents one state. (That blue-state outlier is New Mexico, which combines a small population with not one, but two nuclear-weapons laboratories — which explains why it has a dollars-received to taxes-paid ratio of over 2.0.)

Federal spending received per Federal tax dollar paid, by state

      ratio of Republican to Democratic presidential vote, 2008