Reporters Should Think Big on Budget Reforms

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The Washington Post did a great job last week comparing spending earmarks by members of Congress with the locations of property they own in their states. Some members are apparently using our tax dollars to expand infrastructure near their homes and businesses, thus gaining a personal benefit from federal spending.

Washington Post reporters usually do great research on the spending behaviors of politicians, but they often don’t ask the big-picture questions. The Post has uncovered waste and corruption in earmarking, housing programs, and other federal activities, but the paper usually only suggests superficial reforms such as better ethics rules.

When you read the Post story on earmarks, the obvious problem with all the projects identified is that they are properly state, local, and private activities. The story summarized questionable earmarks for 30 members of Congress, and the spending activities included repaving roads, expanding highways, building parking lots, replenishing beaches, dredging harbors, improving traffic signals, and building light rail projects.

States, cities, and private businesses can and should finance these sorts of activities by themselves. There is no economic or technical reason why the federal government needs to be involved. Indeed, there are many disadvantages of federal involvement—including the pork barrel politics that the Post does a great job researching.

Today in the Post, I see the same problem with Walter Pincus’s interesting article on port dredging, which is carried out by the Corps of Engineers. Members of Congress have been battling to secure Corps’ projects in their districts for 150 years, and it’s always been a wasteful process. (Watch for my forthcoming essay on DG).

Pincus hints that port dredging is a subsidy to the “multibillion-dollar import-export business,” and he is right. But he doesn’t then proceed to address the obvious big-picture question: Can businesses support these activities by themselves without subsidies?

The answer is yes. Seaports and seaport dredging can be privatized. Hong Kong has the world’s best seaport according to the World Economic Forum (p. 391), and it is privately financed and operated. By contrast, U.S. seaports—which are generally government-owned—ranked just 23rd in the world, according to the WEF.

So let me suggest that when reporters are investigating problems with federal programs they ask a few big-picture questions. Is the program really needed? Can state governments or the private sector do it? What can we learn from reforms in other countries? After all, the federal government is running ongoing trillion-dollar deficits. To solve its giant fiscal problems, it will need much more than ethics and earmark reforms.

For background, see essays on privatizationfiscal federalism, and transportation.