Commentary

Potomac Fever

This article appeared on Nationalreview.com on December 12, 2005.
Congress is being criticized for funding pork projects and for a general lack of fiscal restraint. Many people agree that there is a spending problem in Washington, but not many understand the fundamental causes.

Why have Republicans abandoned their pledge in the 1994 Contract with America to cut “government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money”? Did the GOP simply decide that it was good politics to buy votes with lavish special-interest spending?

That is one cause of the budget crisis, but not the core problem. With the extraordinarily high reelection rates in Congress, any political advantage gained from special-interest spending is not crucial. The real problem is the pro-spending mindset ingrained in long-time legislators. It’s called “Potomac Fever,” and it causes members of Congress to see themselves as philanthropists with unlimited means to solve every problem in society.

Potomac Fever is fueled by the thousands of interest groups in Washington that trumpet the benefits of favored programs. For legislators, spending rewards their egos because they get lauded in the media for their noble public service, they get praised by program beneficiaries, they get toasted at gala dinners in their honor, and they get buildings and highways named after them.

Unfortunately, members of Congress forget that they are spending other people’s money. They don’t consider the private activities that would occur if resources weren’t redirected to Washington to fund their “philanthropy.” They become program advocates, rather than referees who judge program merits against concerns about tax levels and adherence to the Constitution.

This phenomenon is evident in the biographies on many congressional websites. Many members boast of the awards they have won for supporting special-interest spending. By my count, the Senate’s top recipient of special-interest awards is Patty Murray (D., Wash.). Her website proudly lists 81 pro-spending awards including “Friend of the Farm Bureau,” the “Golden Spike Award” for her support of Amtrak, and the “Lifetime Leadership for Quality Childcare Award.”

Senator Murray’s website also lists awards for spending on veterans and economic development programs and her “tireless support of Asian Pacific elders.” She has won awards for “leadership in building communities that thrive,” “improving the quality of child care,” and an award for “support of children and families in the nation.” Add all that to her “Distinguished Humanitarian Award,” and the senator could be mistaken for Mother Teresa!

Other top “philanthropists” in the Senate include Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), who lists 67 pro-spending awards, and Mike DeWine (R. Ohio), who lists 44 . Senator DeWine’s website says that he has spent his entire 30-year career in “public service” working on behalf of “our children” and “citizens across the globe.” It touts his awards for “leadership in reducing global hunger and disease” and his “work to improve mental health care for all Americans.”

Such puffery goes to the heads of politicians. Consider Sen. Ted Stevens (R., Alaska), who is a champion special-interest spender on highways, arts, and public television. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting gave him its “most prestigious honor” for support of “public broadcasting on behalf of our nation.” The senator’s ego is so closely tied to his spending activities that he threatened to retire if funding for his wasteful “bridge to nowhere” was cut from the recent highway bill.

The spending impulse of Stevens and other legislators is reinforced at every turn in Washington. Congressmen are bombarded with funding requests during visits from constituents, at receptions, in phone calls to campaign contributors, in meetings with lobbyists, in discussions with other members, and in news articles.

Congressional hearings add to the pro-spending climate. Rather than being like court proceedings, where a balance of views is heard, hearings are dominated by witnesses who favor more spending. Witnesses skillfully flatter members for their wise support of supposedly vital programs.

What medicine can cure Potomac Fever? Congressional term limits would help. Tight caps on overall spending would help. Better understanding of the failures of government programs would help. But first we need to appreciate that politicians enjoy spending, they gain esteem from it, and most of them see their role as philanthropists, not defenders of the taxpayer or the Constitution.

Chris Edwards is director of tax policy at the Cato Institute and author of Downsizing the Federal Government.