July 9, 2009 1:16PM

Jeff Flake vs. the Spending Robots

Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona is one of the very few fiscal policy heroes in Congress. Last night, he was doing what he does best -- offering amendments to cut funding from a wasteful appropriations bill moving through the House.

Flake tried to strike spending earmarks slipped into the bill by both Republicans and Democrats. Watching the action on C-SPAN, I was struck by what a bunch of robots the big spenders defending the bill were. They said things like "this project is very important," "it will help people," and "it has a rate of return of 30-to-1 for every tax dollar spent."

Flake pointed out the simple logical flaws in the spenders' arguments. If an earmarked project is so important, why doesn't it get funding through the normal competitive process? If a project has such a high return, wouldn't private investors swoop in to earn the big profits? The "high return" claim is a commonly used gambit by big-spending politicians. Economist Martin Sullivan calls it the "liberal Laffer curve."

Anyway, the spending robots listened politely to Flake, then they focused back in on their staff-prepared bullet points and continued with their self-interested drivel about how the nation's fate rested on federal aid for the Elvis museum back in their hometown, or whatever their particular project was.

Flake presented some interesting statistics on the earmarks in the agriculture appropriations bill being considered last night. As shown in the chart below, two-thirds of the earmarks go to a small, exclusive club within the House of those on the appropriations committee, committee chairs, and party leadership. He characterized the appropriations process as a "spoils system," which is evocative of government corruption of the past, such as Tammany Hall.

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But unlike the original Tammany Hall, today's spoils system is not party-based. Instead, it's run by an elite and bipartisan group of spending robots within Congress, who pose as representatives of the people when they travel outside the beltway. As Flake implied, it's odd that the great majority of members and their constituents, who get the short end of the stick from the spoils system, don't revolt.