Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why Cheese Factories on the Moon?

It seems like a complete non-sequitur: Cheese Factories on the Moon.  The title does not exactly scream “earmarks” or even “politics.”  The first publisher to offer us a contract for our book insisted on a title change, believing it would be too hard to market the book.  We waited for a second offer.  Paradigm Publishers and our editor Jennifer Knerr offered us a contract.  Our first question to her was: “Do we get to keep our title?”  When she said “yes” it was a done deal; we quickly signed the contract before she could change her mind. Maybe it was an indication of Jennifer’s belief in the project, or an indication of her complete recklessness, or our own recklessness—maybe we worked hard on a book that will never sell!
Why were we so insistent on keeping the title?  In part to communicate to potential readers that while we were taking on a serious subject—why earmarks are good for American democracy, which is the subtitle of the book—we intended to balance the  seriousness of the subject matter with good humor, a contrarian spirit, and some irreverence.  Hopefully the title also communicates accessibility.   Political science scholarship is often opaque and, as a result, irrelevant to the public discourse.  We wanted this to be a book that could be read by students and people who want to hear the other side of the argument about earmarks (yes there is another side to the argument but one would almost never know that).  If we are lucky maybe we can influence the public debate in some small way.
            But the title serves another purpose.  It is inspired by former Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm’s state was home to the superconducting supercollider project in, which many saw as a pork-infested boondoggle.  He infamously said regarding his support for the supercollider:
As I am fond of saying, if the Congress had a vote on whether to build a cheese factory on the Moon, I would oppose it based on what I know now, and I cannot imagine the circumstance under which I would support it. But on the other hand, if Congress in its lack of wisdom decided to start a cheese factory on the Moon, I would want a Texas firm to do the engineering, I would want a Texas construction firm to do the construction, I would want the milk to come from Texas cows, and I would want the celestial distribution center to be in Dallas, Texas, or College Station, Texas, or somewhere else in my State.[1]
Senator Gramm’s quote reflects the tension that members of Congress face with regard to simultaneously serving the interests of the people who elected them and that they represent, and serving the national interest. It may not be in the national interest to build a cheese factory on the Moon; it may be a colossal waste of time and resources.  But the American electoral system is, by design, based on geography; members of Congress are elected by voters grouped into distinct geographic constituencies (House districts and states).  If lunar cheese production becomes the policy of the nation, a representative has a responsibility to pursue the maximum possible benefit for the people who sent him (in this case) to the U.S. Senate; for Gramm the people of Texas.
Gramm’s fanciful example also brings into view the important, if misunderstood, distinction between authorizing legislation and appropriations.  The most consequential decision that Congress makes is whether to authorize the building and operation of an orbiting cheese factory.  In so doing the Congress makes the project a priority.  Appropriations earmarks (directing spending to particular functions, hence the term “congressionally directed spending”) are not about how the money will be spent—that decision is made well before actual appropriations are made, when the program is authorized—but where the money will be spent; will the money be spent in Texas or Maine, Washington or Florida, or somewhere else?
Someone has to decide where the money will be spent.  Critics of earmarks prefer that the executive branch have exclusive domain over these decisions.  But there is no reason to believe that the bureaucracy is a “politics-free zone” in which all decisions are made with sole recourse to the objective technocratic expertise and cost-benefit analyses.  Presidents and other executive branch actors could easily use their power to award projects to the districts and states of influential members of Congress, or to benefit states that are important to his Electoral College coalition.  And the executive branch is far less transparent than the Congress. Maybe it was a coincidence that in November 1988 the Department of Energy announced its decision to locate the superconducting supercollider in Texas, the home-state of Vice President (and soon-to-be-President) George H.W. Bush, Senator Phil Gramm, and then-Speaker of the House Jim Wright.  Maybe it was not.
The focus on earmarks amounts to political sleight-of-hand.  Pennywise and pound-foolish critics of earmarks misdirect the public’s attention.  They cause the public to despair over congressionally directed spending (earmarks), while ignoring the far more consequential decision: the decision to authorize building a cheese factory on the Moon.

[1]  Adam Meyerson, "The Genius of Ordinary People," Interview with Sen. Phil Gramm, Heritage Foundation Policy Review 50 (Fall 1989): 11-12.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Earmarks and Campaign Contributions: Less Than Meets the Eye

Last week Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) released a report on the relationship between earmarks and campaign contributions.  TCS purports to show that campaign contributions to members of Congress are associated with the earmarks that members get for their campaign contributors.[1] 

The TCS report relies heavily on a narrative that frames earmarks as an illegitimate exercise of legislative power undertaken by craven politicians obsessed with getting reelected (a narrative that is widely shared by the public).  TCS (and its doppelganger Citizens Against Government Waste) uses media outlets, starved for content, as a megaphone. 

Fundamentally transformed over the last several decades, most media outlets do not have the resources to engage in in-depth reporting and they capitalize on the ability of groups like TCS to provide seemingly in-depth political analysis without critical review.  The media also shares with TCS a cynical view of politicians.  Resource scarcity combined with a shared narrative, and the media’s need to feed the 24-hour news cycle, produces a “perfect storm” of sensational and misleading coverage.

In a story titled “Earmarks set aside for campaign donors, report finds” in The Washington Post the results of the TCS study were dutifully recounted punctuated with quotes from the leading voice of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Steve Ellis suggesting a quid pro quo between earmarks and contributions (as the title of the article suggests): "In too many cases campaign contributors are able to donate thousands of dollars and get millions of dollars back in earmarks."[2]

These stories echo—maintaining the essential narrative structure promoted by the groups—in local media outlets by focusing attention on local representatives who are held up as examples of “big spenders who trade earmarks for campaign contributions.”  For instance, citing this study The Seattle Weekly reported on Norm Dicks’ earmarks and campaign contributions highlighting the supposed quid pro quo angle noting that his “giving [earmarks] results in a lot of receiving [campaign contributions].”[3]  Stories like these further amplify TCS’ message.

Taking this report at face value a reader is led to believe that the vast majority of campaign contributions come from the recipients of earmarks: That is simply not true.

The TCS report does not mention that about 200 members of Congress (almost half) either did not request or receive earmarks, or did not receive contributions from individuals and organizations associated with their earmarks, according to the data.  Failing to mention that fact supports the central narrative of the report—that all members are linking earmarks to campaign contributions—but it is misleading.

The report fails to provide adequate context for the fundraising data.  Jim Moran (D-VA) received over $71,000 in campaign contributions (placing him #1 in that category) and is ranked #4 in total earmarks.  Seventy-one thousand dollars is a lot of money; there is no doubt about it.  But according to the Federal Election Commission in this electoral cycle Moran raised over $700,000 dollars for his campaign.  Seventy-one thousand dollars is a lot of money, but it is a relatively small proportion of his overall war chest. 

Using the TCS data for Fiscal Year 2010 we added Federal Election Commission data on total campaign contributions for the 2010 election cycle. Of the 233 members of Congress included in the database, less than one percent (precisely 0.8%) of their campaign contributions was raised from individuals or PACs associated with their earmarks.  Put another way, 99.2% of campaign contributions are not tied to earmarks in this study. If we include the 202 members who did not receive any contributions associated with their earmarks the percentage of campaign contributions associated with earmarks is less than one-half of one percent.  If 99.2% of campaign contributions come from somewhere else it does not make a lot of sense to hand-wring over where 0.8% comes from.  Our campaign finance system is clearly broken; blaming it on earmarks leaves TCS barking up the wrong tree.

Moran’s case is an outlier; it is the exception not the rule.  The average member of Congress in the TCS data (among those who raised any money at all) collected a little more than $5,000 in campaign contributions from interests receiving earmarks.  This is compared to the average war chest of these same members, which was $875,000.  The most common amounts raised by the members according to TCS data? Eighteen members raised $500 and 17 raised $1,000.  It seems unlikely that members of Congress would trade hundreds and millions of dollars in earmarks for such paltry sums.

The use of appropriations earmarks is one political issue where the media consistently fails to exercise balance in their coverage.  While media outlets routinely take pains to seek out conflicting views on even the most widely accepted truths (e.g., global climate change, evolution), it is rare to hear dissenting voices on the issue of appropriations earmarks. 

To the degree that the media trumpets, unchallenged, the results of reports like this one from Taxpayers for Common Sense they do the public a great disservice.

[1] “Exploring the Relationship Between Earmarks and Campaign Contributions” accessed June 7, 2010:
[2] J.W. Farnham “Earmarks set aside for campaign donors, report finds” accessed June 7, 2010:
[3] Rick Anderson “Norm Dicks' Earmarks Pay Campaign Dividends” The Seattle Weekly, accessed June 7, 2010: