Federal Budget Transparency

Mark Tapscott’s Examiner editorial on a “mystery Senator” who has put an anonymous hold on the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act observes,

[F]ederal spending transparency is anathema for too many Democrats and Republicans in government. They think members of the public ought to keep their noses out of how their tax dollars are being spent by the Potomac potentates at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and all the departments and agencies in between.

That’s certainly true. At the same time, however, voters love pork barrel spending–so long as it goes to their district, state, or interest. No matter how unpopular the Congress is as an institution–it generally ranks somewhere below trial lawyers and used car salesmen–people generally like their own Congressman.

This creates conflicting pressures: Every Member is out to get as much as he can get for his district or state while at the same time trying to present the illusion that they’re tough on pork. Hiding such spending in various pots with popular labels is the easiest way to square that circle. FFAT would strive to strip them of that tool.

Obviously, the real way to get rid of pork would be a return to something more akin to the Framers’ vision of the role of the federal government. If Uncle Sam concentrated mostly on foreign policy and interstate commerce narrowly defined, with commensurate tax and budget cuts, the problem would solve itself. That’s not going to happen, though. Not so much for the cynical reason always given: that politicians will never voluntarily give up power. While true enough, the more compelling reason is that the people just don’t want that in practice, however much lip service they pay it in theory.

UPDATE: Both Radley Balko and Jon Henke have related thoughts on the matter of corruption in politics.

Balko is mystified by those who think the problem with lobbying is lobbyists:

Do they not understand that lobbying is the inevitable, inescapeable product of a massive federal government? Thanks to the leviathan regulatory state, subsidies and corporate welfare, and the panoply of bad ideas that haven’t yet made it into law, lawmakers and regulators put hundreds of billions of dollars at stake each year in Washington. If I were a shareholder, I’d be pissed if my company didn’t invest millions (at least) on lobbying. And not just for rent seeking purposes, but also to make sure that other companies don’t seek rents at my company’s expense.

Henke observes that “there’s no ideological or biological reason that any one Party would be more or less susceptible to corruption” and cautions,

Howard Dean and the Democrats should be reminded of that statement when they flog the ‘culture of corruption’ theme. If they don’t have concrete plans to make major changes to the Institutions, then they have no intention of ending the ‘culture of corruption’ — they just want a piece of the action.

Both are quite right. While there is certainly legitimate criminality in the system a’la Jack Abramoff, the bigger problem is the inherent incentives in the institutional arrangements. For reasons discussed in the original post, I am not at all optimistic that those will change.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I think the base closing and consolidation appeared to be just as insoluble a problem for the same reason. Everyone wanted to see a reduction in the federal budget defense spending from the cold war numbers, but didn’t want the base in their area closed. Perhaps the same sort of reform would be needed, with an independent commission “consolidating” the budget to a two option choice. One with all the pork and one that was balanced by the commission. Making one high profile vote would make it harder to do the two step “I am against big government deficit spending, now let me tell you about all the goodies I have brought home”.

    On the other hand, I agree that a return to a pre-FDR interpretation of the powers of congress would also solve the problem to a great degree.

  2. McGehee says:

    a “mystery Senator” who has put an anonymous hold on the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act…

    Am I the only one who immediately thought of Ted Stevens?

    With Sheets Byrd a close second…?

  3. RJN says:

    Radley Balko is right, of course.

    Term limits. We need term limits. We have to break Congress. Maybe someday.