Monday, November 8, 2010

Parochialism is the Point (sort of)

The election is over. Republicans won the House and increased their numbers in the Senate. Now the media are beginning to focus on how the newly-empowered Republicans will govern.  No longer are earmarks a “talking point;” now they are part of the discussion about how the Republicans will run the House, and how the Republicans might influence the generation of earmarks in the Senate.
One prominent criticism leveled at earmarks is that they are “parochial,” that is, that they are meant to benefit the narrow interests of a single congressional district or state.  The implication is that they do so at the expense of the rest of the country.
In the Senate one of the primary opponents of earmarks is Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).  In the weeks leading up to the election Coburn often sought to cast earmarks as parochial. In an interview with us a few weeks before the election Coburn stuck to this theme: “Earmarks promote parochialism…The oath of a U.S. Senator is to do what is in the best interest of the country as a whole.”[1]  The next day he repeated this same complaint to the White House fiscal commission: “Our problem is we’ve put parochial concerns ahead of the long-term interests of the country.”[2] 
The earmarks-as-parochialism meme long ago captured the media narrative surrounding earmarks.  The common use of the term “pet project” to describe earmarked expenditures communicates that point pretty well.  We expect that politicians will continue capitalizing on this narrative, which captures the attention of reporters.
What is mostly misunderstood—by many people, by many in the media, and by most politicians—is that parochialism is (partially) the point of the design of our political institutions.
In Federalist Paper #58 James Madison speaks in almost poetic terms of the wisdom of investing the “power of the purse,” the power to spend money, in Congress. He says Congress’ power of the purse is “the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.” The founders sought to provide a means by which “the people” could exercise a more direct influence over federal spending.
Parochialism has its benefits. Conservatives in particular--but others too--bemoan the “one size fits all” nature of federal government programs.  Using earmarks members of Congress can capture programmatic funding to adapt federal programs to local needs that might be overlooked by Washington bureaucracies. Earmarks provide an opportunity for members of Congress to offer “redress” to their constituents.
A “pet project” that results from naked self interest and that is anchored in parochialism is not less impressive because of its origins. In the absence of Senator Pete Domenici’s (R-NM) parochialism—his concern for New Mexico based Department of Energy scientists as the Cold War wound down and peace broke out— the Human Genome Project would never have taken off and produced one of the signal achievements of American science. Parochialism has its benefits.
Part of the genius of the institutional design we inherited from the founders was the conscious and creative incorporation of parochialism into our governing system. Earmarks are just one echo of the efforts of the founders to build a political system that was simultaneously responsive to the demands of the people and responsive to the national interest.

[1]  Senator Tom Coburn. Phone interview with the authors, September 28, 2010.
[2]  Walter Alarkon, “Fiscal panel poised to target earmarks” The Hill 9/29/10; Accessed November 5, 2010.

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