Big Government’s Catch 22: How liberals get fiscal libertarians to beg

Several Republican presidential candidates including Michelle Bachmann, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry have been attacked for accepting stimulus money and other earmark spending. Newsweek uncovered that many of the projects that the candidates had bashed publicly, they were praising privately in funding requests for their districts. Democrats are already crying, “Hypocrites!”

This story, however, is less about small government hypocrisy than about big government’s catch-22 that entraps even the strongest fiscal libertarians. In Joseph Heller’s novel, a catch-22 was a bureaucratic rule for which there was no escape. The bomber pilot Orr is faced with one such rule that stated that if he agrees to fly his missions during which he is constantly shot down, then he’s labeled “crazy” and doesn’t have to. But if he chooses not to, then he is“sane” and has to. It’s a no-win situation.

Small government congressmen are in a similar situation. If they accept federal dollars, they’re called hypocrites and undermine any future arguments against spending. If they don’t accept the money, then the rest of the country gets it and profits off their principles at the expense of their constituents. Heads, I win. Tails, you lose.

You see, once big spenders pass legislation authorizing , for example, $8 billion for high speed rail, if the legislation isn’t “earmarked” already by Congress, it’s up to the Department of Transportation (DOT) to decide which projects receive the money. In order to get a share, congressmen must request it on behalf of their districts, which creates a second bind for the would-be fiscal libertarian: The DOT evaluates the merits of each request, so every congressman must make the strongest case possible in his letter.

For congressional Democrats, the decision to lobby to receive dollars is easy. But for anyone with the slightest small-government inclination, they enter big-government’s Catch-22 again. If they make the case on behalf of their constituents, then they inevitably fall into all the same rhetoric they rejected when they voted against the spending: it’ll create jobs, stimulate the economy, benefit my city, etc. If they don’t make the case, they don’t receive the funds, and their constituents pay taxes for spending they never see a dime of.

Take, for example, Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian GOP presidential candidate from Texas. The congressman’s hatred for government spending is second-to-none. Paul has voted against each and every budget since he entered Congress in the 1970s. He’s even repeatedly taken to the airwaves to denounce FEMA and federal flood insurance despite his district’s coastal location. Lobbyists skip his office, which contains the menacing sign “Don’t steal: Government hates competition.”

Yet, as the Newsweek investigation points out, Paul has also signed onto letters requesting funds from those very budgets and appropriation bills he worked so hard to defeat, including a high speed rail project. Has the libertarian gone big government? Hardly. The money was already taken from the economy as soon as the Stimulus Package passed. At that point, it either would be spent in Paul’s district or someone else’s. The libertarian option–no government spending–was off the table.

Rick Perry has faced the same criticism, but governors are stuck with an even more obvious predicament. Under the Left’s version of “consistency,” Perry would have to turn down federal funds for medicaid, medicare, schools, highways, etc. all of which Texans are taxed to support. To say he’s obligated to reject it all is ridiculous.

Half the problem is our government’s largess. No political spoils, no political pirates. But the other half is the lack of earmarking by Congress. To conservatives, earmarks are almost criminal. In a way, they are, but if the government is going to spend taxpayers’ money on a project (wasteful or otherwise), Congress, not executive branch bureaucrats, should appropriate it, as the Constitution mandates. Otherwise, congressmen will be forced back into big government’s catch-22: beg or starve.

Tea Party Republicans probably didn’t see this fact clearly when they fought to ban earmarks last year. Earmark bans abbreviate the Congressional appropriation process and hand a pile of cash to the executive branch to spend as the bureaucrats see fit. Congressional earmarks at least allow for more transparency in the process by openly disclosing which projects get funds in advance. The Solyndra scandal shows how corrupt closed-door deal making in the executive branch can be.

Perhaps we don’t want to earmark everything. Maybe, for example, we shouldn’t politicize highway funds (e.g. bridge to nowhere), but Republicans should at least be cognizant of what they’re giving up. The fact that no one, including many members of Congress, actually understands the appropriation process means that Democrats can exploit this popular ignorance for political gain. Congress takes the money and holds fiscal libertarians hostage. When they choose to beg, Democrats are quick to taunt. Rep. Alan Grayson from Florida has already called it “the height of hypocrisy.” But it’s not really about hypocrisy. It’s about big government’s Catch-22.

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Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.

View all posts by Daniel Bier

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