More Polarization, Less Corruption

A blog about business and economics.
May 23 2012 10:28 AM

The Real Source of Corruption in Congress: Members' Good-Faith Efforts To Help People

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U.S. sergeant Sara Nichols from 159th Brigade Task Force Thunder checks the tail rotor blades of a Black Hawk medevac helicopter at Kandahar Air Field on Oct. 21, 2011

Photograph by Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images.

Why does the U.S. military pay $17,000 for a drip pan to catch transmission fluid on Black Hawk helicopters when other military helicopters get by with drip pans that cost as little as $2,500? The answer is simple. Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republicans who now chairs the House Appropriations Committee inserted an earmark in 2009 mandating that the Black Hawk use a particular drip pan. Since that time, this kind of earmarking has been banned. But it's reasonable to wonder what kind of difference that will make. Rogers, after all, is chairman of the Appropriations Committee so any federal agency with any sense is going to be very solicitous of his views. And particularly because Rogers, like all House Republicans, is a very sincere and very principled opponent of excessive government spending every government agency knows that angering Rogers could easily produce wrathful budget cuts.

But why does Rogers care so much about Phoenix Products that he wants to send all this business his way?

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Eric Lichtblau, the author of the article, does the usual journalist's thing of implying-without-saying that it's all about the money, noting that "the company’s owners are political contributors to the congressman." My suspicion, however, is that the truth is much more pernicious. After all, there are lots of companies that could try to bribe Rep. Rogers into doing earmarks for them. And Phoenix Products has competitors who make cheaper drip pans who'd benefit financially from Rogers not imposing the earmark. Rogers could save the taxpayers' money, emerge as a hero of good government, and get campaign contributions from rival drip pan makers by flip-flopping on the subject.

What Phoenix Products has is something unique. It's based in Kentucky, just like Harold Rogers. Its employees live in Harold Rogers' district, they shop in stores that are in Harold Rogers' district, their spouses and siblings live in Harold Rogers' district, their incomes bolster the  tax base for municipalities in Harold Rogers' district. So if Harold Rogers wants to do the right thing for Harold Rogers' constituents, he needs to do the right thing for Phoenix Products.

This is one of the reasons why increased congressional polarization has tended to lead to a decline in pork and earmarking. It's easy to bemoan politicians who've stopped being pragmatic, results-oriented dealmakers who only want the best possible outcomes for the people they represent and instead insist on adhering to a rigid ideological vision. But when you look in detail at what that means, it often looks ugly. Overpriced drip pans are bad for the American military and bad for the American taxpayer. And in a small way they're not just a waste of money, they're a waste of real resources. The overall pattern of U.S. economic life is distorted toward overinvestment in some low-efficiency Kentucky drip pan factories and ancillary services for its employees. But in a Congress full of members who represent specific narrow geographical areas, only things like partisanship and rigid fealty to totalizing ideologies prevents all policy decisions from being a series of scams.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.