Why We Tolerate a Wasteful Congress

The Pentagon has never been known for its budget cutting ways; indeed, they spend $3 billion a day. Yet even for the Pentagon, some spending is unconscionable. The Pentagon wants to suspend refurbishment of the M1 Abrams tank pending a tank redesign. This time the Pentagon is siding with commonsense, as they ask, why refurbish obsolete weapons?

Of course, as you would expect, General Dynamics, the tank contractor, thinks otherwise. They don’t see any problem in spending on obsolete weapons—as long as they are building them. So what can General Dynamics do to keep the money flowing in their direction? They can lobby Congress:

Top Army officials have so far been unable to get political traction to kill the M1. Part of the reason is that General Dynamics and its well-connected lobbyists have been carrying a large checkbook and a sheaf of pro-tank talking points around on the Hill.

For example, when House Armed Services Committee member Hank Johnson, D-Ga., held a campaign fundraiser at a wood-paneled Capitol Hill steakhouse called the Caucus Room just before Christmas last year, someone from GD brought along a $1,500 check for his reelection campaign. Several months later, Johnson signed a letter to the Pentagon supporting funding for the tank. Johnson spokesman Andy Phelan said the congressman has consistently supported the M-1 “because he doesn’t think shutting down the production line is in the national interest.”

So, for $1500 and a steak dinner, the evidence suggests a congressman can be bought or at least rented. Johnson may have left money on the table. Some Congressmen are a just bit more expensive:

At a March 9 hearing of the House subcommittee dealing with land forces, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, railed against the Army’s decision to freeze work on the Abrams. Since the start of 2001, Reyes has received $64,650 in GD donations, including $1,000 on March 10, the day after the hearing, according to the data.  Reyes office did not return a request to comment; his overall campaign receipts in the current election cycle have been $1 million.

The economics as to why this continues is clear. The benefits of a spending program are concentrated in the hands of the special interests, in this case, General Dynamics. Since our individual loss (in taxes we pay) is much smaller than the concentrated benefits that accrue to General Dynamics, they have a stronger interest in promoting the M1 program then we have an opposing it.

But there is a question here that is larger than economics. Why do Americans tolerate such wasteful spending; the sum total of which is leading us to national ruin? We could, after all, elect a Congress of Ron Paul-type candidates who would quickly end such waste. We will have another opportunity this November to do exactly that.  But, despite their perpetual dissatisfaction with Congress, Americans largely reelect their congressmen, including congressmen such as Reyes and Johnson.

There are multiple reasons we could come up with to explain why this waste is tolerated. Perhaps some don’t believe we’re spending too much; they don’t believe we’re headed for national ruin. That certainly is true for some; those who think like Paul Krugman say we are spending too little. “Stimulus would help a lot,” William Gale of the Brookings Institution claimed today . Others may be in favor of ending special interest programs that benefit others—but keeping the programs that benefit themselves.

But how about the many who understand that such reckless spending cannot continue and who are not receiving benefits from special-interest programs? Are there too few of them left to make a difference? Or, is there some other factor at work here?

I believe the other factor is fear. Those who benefit by the current system prey on our fears. We believe we must have the existing level of government, indeed, we may need even more government—because without more government, chaos would result.

In other words, Americans fear chaos—they demonstrated this every November as they elect politicians who run on variations of the fear theme. They understand that our current system is wasteful, but feel chaos is worse than waste. They can observe that, without government intervention, an orderly market system offers an abundant array of alternative products and services at all price points and measures of quality to satisfy most of their daily needs. But, despite that evidence, they can’t imagine life without a big (and getting bigger) government.

Would chaos result if government spending shrunk? Let me ask a different question first. Would a teenager hooked on videogames really have nothing to do if he stopped playing video games for hours a day? The answer to the latter question is, of course, no. A whole world of possibilities that he had ignored would beckon to him.

Similarly, Americans would find a robust entrepreneurial economy emerging if the crushing weight of government were lifted.

Our fears, not Congress, are what is really are choking America. And here’s the irony: By succumbing to the sophistry of those who prey on our fears, we worsen the economic situation; productive sectors of the economy are further strained under regulatory and tax burdens, and our fear continues to mount. Politicians sense our fear, like a mosquito senses our sweat.

There really is no way out—until we face our fears. The truth is that without wasteful government spending there would be less chaos, not more. But like the fearful teenager without video games, we must have the courage to embrace the alternative.

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