Thomas Jefferson: Porkbuster

Stephen Moore, Political Diary:

During last week’s debate about the federal earmarking process — which is used to distribute pork to congressional districts — House Appropriators struck back. The appropriators, of both parties, complain that fiscal conservatives in the House are trying to ruin a time-honored congressional tradition of passing out bacon by demanding full transparency for pork spending. In a letter to his colleagues, Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson went so far as to argue that the Framers wouldn’t have approved of this effort to curb Congress’s power of the purse and even claimed “earmarking is virtually required by article 1 section 9 clause 7 of the Constitution.”

So we did some checking on the writings of the founders to shed some light on their view of the domestic pork process. The first budget ever passed by Congress approved roughly $100 million of funds in today’s dollars. There were no Lawrence Welk Museums or Cowboy Hall of Fame earmarks in the bill — which was only a few pages long. The founders believed that if a government function wasn’t listed in the Constitution under the enumerated powers clause (Article I, Section 8), the right to spend money didn’t exist. Pork was hardly an issue.

The biggest opponent to federal spending on parochial projects was Thomas Jefferson. Here is what Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Madison: “I view [road building] as a source of boundless patronage to the executive, jobbing to members of Congress & their friends, and a bottomless abyss of public money. You will begin by only appropriating the surplus of the post roads revenues, but the other revenues will soon be called into their aid, and it will be a scene of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get most who are meanest.”

To be sure, there were defenders of congressional funding of local projects, most notably Alexander Hamilton. But back then the stakes and dollar amounts were much smaller. Given what’s happening today in Congress with highway bills larded up with thousands of special projects, we’d say that Jefferson’s warning was amazingly prescient. We’d also say that the founders would be mighty disgusted with the way Republicans and Democrats have been serving as guardians of the public purse.