Goo-Goo Economics

While waiting for my Chinese take-out food, I glanced over at the newspaper rack and saw a headline that would have made me choke if I’d already been eating my Chinese spare ribs and pork-fried rice. The local weekly blared, “How should Maryland spend the Obama windfall”? Sports fans who remember football coach Jim Mora’s rant in 2001 during a post-game press conference and others who’ve seen it replayed in beer commercials can imagine the exact tone in my inner voice as I read the headline:

“What’s that? Windfall? Don’t talk about a windfall! You kidding me? Windfall?”

Wiktionary defines a windfall as “a sudden large benefit; especially an influx of money.” As I write this, the current U.S. government national debt is over $10.6 trillion, which works out to nearly $35,000 per person in the U.S. By the time you read this, it will be higher. Where’s the windfall that apparently allowed us to pay off the national debt and have enough left over for President-elect Obama’s stimulus package which by his own estimates could exceed $1 trillion?Already, Maryland politicians are egging on their constituents with promises of big money from the federal treasury. Mike Miller, the Maryland Senate’s “President for Life,” was practically giddy about the prospect of Maryland’s delegation on Capitol Hill showering the state with federal dollars:

"We're going to have so much pork here, it's a wonder it doesn't float off into the Chesapeake Bay. There's good stuff coming to Southern Maryland."… It's gonna get down before it gets better, but I think things are looking up."

Maryland is certainly in a prime position to grab a good share of the money we don’t have. Steny Hoyer is the House majority leader and a master at ladling pork; he was one of the top 10 earmarkers in the House for 2008.  Senator Barbara Mikulski is not far behind Hoyer in her pork-slinging abilities. In fact, Senator Mikulski publicly suggested that federal stimulus money could help fund a new high school in Charles County. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is a Maryland native and could be sympathetic to projects in Baltimore, her hometown.The numbers point to their success. In 2005, Maryland taxpayers received $1.30 in federal funding per dollar of federal taxes paid, a higher than average haul. From 1981-2005, Maryland has ranked no lower than 21st in the nation in this category, making it a beneficiary state.Some of you reading this may be thinking, “Hey, if it’s out there, why not get our share?” An elected official’s ability to bring tax dollars back into the communities he or she represents is more often than not the key reason people vote for one person over another. Certainly here in southern Maryland, it’s what keeps Steny Hoyer in power despite the fact most of his votes in Congress don’t reflect the values of his largely rural and conservative district.Just because we can do it doesn’t make it right, however. If Maryland is ranked 18th as a beneficiary state, 32 other states are getting less from the federal government than they pay in federal taxes. How would you react if your tax dollars were going to pay for some dubious project in another state? I know how you’d react – look at all the fuss over the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, a project which became a national joke but to the residents of Ketchikan is a critical need.What about the debt we’re leaving for our children and grandchildren to resolve? If the American economy and the federal safety net come down around them, they’ll look back to us and wonder why we didn’t do anything to prevent this calamity from happening to them.Finally, there is a dying concept called “the national interest.” This presumes our legislators think beyond their own reelection and the voters resist being bought and paid for by their elected officials with other people’s money. Exhibit A is Congressman Jeff Flake, Republican from Arizona, and his constituents in Arizona’s 6th Congressional District. Rep. Flake is known for his aggressive stance against earmarks and wasteful government spending, making him a thorn in the backside for Democrats and Republicans alike. He was removed from the Judiciary Committee for “bad behavior” by members who also served on the Appropriations Committee and resented his attacks on earmarks. He was named a “Taxpayer Superhero” by the Citizens Against Government Waste for his crusade against government spending, and he practices what he preaches. He accepts no earmarks for his district and opponents who’ve run against him for that reason have been soundly defeated. Here is a case where both the representative and his constituents have elevated the national interest above their own and demonstrated a principled stand on behalf of our nation’s fiscal health today and tomorrow.President-elect Obama had the audacity to proclaim the past eight years “an era of profound irresponsibility.” Tonight Show host Jay Leno nailed him with this retort:

“Of course, there's only one way out of it. Spend more money we don't have.”

I wish there were a way to significantly weaken if not eliminate our elected officials’ ability to steer money to their districts because their primary purpose is not to serve the national or even the local interest, but to ensure their own reelection. As much as I’d hate to see restrictions placed on any expression of the people’s will, term limits may be one way to break the cycle of pork for votes.We can do our part as well; instead of asking how we can spend the Obama “windfall,” perhaps we should be asking ourselves how we can restrain government spending and ensure only our most critical needs are met. Instead of having our hands out like infants begging for candy or our mouths open like baby birds waiting to be fed, we can exhibit grown-up behavior and show responsibility, and also demand it from our elected officials, in this time of fiscal crisis.