Can good government gum things up?

Posted: April 23, 2013

LATELY AND ironically, I'm wondering whether good government is bad for governing.

I say lately because of that gun vote in Washington last week and coming votes in Harrisburg on transportation.

I say ironically because I'm a drum major for good (or at least better) government.

But a piece in the Washington Post last Friday caught my attention.

Headlined "How the ban on earmarks killed the gun bill," it strongly suggests that the 2011 moratorium on earmarks - those delightful goodies Congress handed out to make things happen - stopped stuff from getting done.

You remember earmarks: the $3.4 million turtle tunnel under a Florida highway; $500,000 for a North Carolina teapot museum; $233 million for the Alaskan bridge to an island of 50 inhabitants, a/k/a the "bridge to nowhere."

Well, the Post piece recalls that President Bill Clinton got NAFTA and President George W. Bush got expanded prescription-drug coverage for seniors with the aid of earmarks.

It also recalls that the one vote needed to pass Clinton's 1993 budget - cast by then-U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies, D-Pa. - came with a Clinton pledge to hold an economic summit in the voter's district, which he later did.

(Margolies lost the next election but reportedly is considering a comeback run next year.)

The point of the piece is that congressional leaders and presidents used to use persuasion other than merit. And they no longer do.

The gun vote expanding criminal-background checks, for example, fell six votes shy of Senate passage.

Six. Just sayin'.

Now many good-government types, taxpayer groups and others seeking to curtail spending oppose earmarks. And the incumbent president hasn't made a practice of making deals.

So maybe it's not that the art of compromise is dead. Maybe Congress gets nothing done because old classics such as "money makes the world go 'round" or "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" are forgotten.

Bring back earmarks?

"I think that's simplistic and wrong," says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based nonprofit, nonpartisan group.

Ellis notes that gun-control efforts since 1994 (when a 10-year assault-weapons ban was adopted; it expired in 2004) failed during a period when there was "an explosion of earmarks."

(And, of course, already an assault-weapons ban.)

Ellis attributes legislative stalemates to many factors, including increased partisanship in both parties, and says that although earmarks maybe helped with a few votes, their impact was "all marginal."

("Marginal," like maybe six votes?)

I see a larger problem in reaching consensus on tough issues. It's the number of lawmakers solely focused on staying lawmakers, and those flatly opposed to any spending increases under the guise of "fiscal responsibility."

That latter group could prove problematic in Pennsylvania as the Legislature tries to deal with transportation funding.

Multiple reports over multiple years say road and bridge repairs are essential for public safety and economic development.

But the cost is enormous: Gov. Corbett proposes $5 billion over five years ($1.8 billion now); Senate Republicans call for $11 billion ($2.5 billion now).

In the past, some number in between could be gotten by promising projects in districts of spending-averse lawmakers.

But a senior Senate aide tells me that many House members "don't want anything" that involves more spending. And when someone doesn't want anything, votes for increased fees or taxes are much tougher to get.

A top House official agrees, noting that one Republican lawmaker who pushed for increased fees/taxes for highways last year is now a former Republican lawmaker.

Former Rep. Rick Geist, of Blair County, then-House Transportation Committee chairman, was defeated in last spring's GOP primary.

So as less and less gets done and more and more gets stalled, a question arises.

Are good-government efforts and "fiscal responsibility" giving us better government or enabling governmental stasis?


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: philly.com/BaerGrowls

Columns: philly.com/JohnBaer

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