Porkbusting and Political Ignorance:

Porkbusters from across the political spectrum are lining up to support Senator Barack Obama's Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, bill that would establish an internet data base describing all federal grants and contracts (see, e.g., here and here). The bill is co-sponsored by conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn and "staunch liberals, determined conservatives and self-professed moderates" in the Senate have all endorsed it. Supporters of the bill hope that it will have a major impact in curtailing porkbarrel spending. Unfortunately, I am more skeptical.

The real problem is not that we have too little information. It is that we can't effectively use the information we already have. The main reason why porkbarrel projects get approved is not so much that information about them is unavailable, but that ordinary voters have little incentive to read it and process it. As I have argued in many of my academic writings (e.g. - here and here), most citizens are "rationally ignorant" about politics and often don't know even very basic political information. For example, some 70 percent of the public did not know that Congress had enacted President Bush's massive $500 billion prescription drug bill, the most important new spending program in decades (source documented here). It is highly unlikely that any significant number of voters who couldn't be bothered to learn about the massive medicare bill will have either the time or the incentive to spend large amounts of time studying the new data base created by the Coburn-Obama Bill. Few will take the time to determine which of thousands of federal grants are wasteful pork and which are legitimate expenditures. Even those voters who do study the database could well be misled by creative labeling. For example, even a clear case of porkbarrel spending such as the notorious "bridge to nowhere" is unlikely to be labeled as such in the data base. Rather, creative congressional staffers could call it something like "spending for essential transportation infrastructure." To be sure, experts will not be fooled, but ordinary voters easily could be unless they devote many hours to the task of smoking out the truth. While they may be willing to do so for a few particularly notorious and highly publicized projects, that is unlikely to happen in the case of the vast majority of porkbarrel grants. To be sure, activist organizations could do some of the spade work for the voters. But reading reports prepared by these organizations and determining which ones are accurate and credible is still a difficult and time-consuming task that few voters are likely to take on.

Lack of information is not the principal cause of widespread porkbarrel spending. There are already numerous articles and studies that analyze wasteful spending, and even a longstanding public interest organization (Citizens Against Government Waste) specifically devoted to documenting it and combatting it (check out their annual Pig Book).

Indeed, the very fact that so many senators are flocking to support the Coburn-Obama bill in itself makes me suspicious. If they genuinely believe that it will lead to the demise of their favorite porkbarrel projects, I would expect much stronger opposition (the fact that one anonymous senator has placed a hold on the bill is far less opposition than should be expected to a bill that really busted pork).

I'm not opposed to the Coburn-Obama bill, and I believe that it might improve things at the margin. But any real solution to the problem of pork must lie elsewhere.