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.
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
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.