Electoral system breeds big spenders

By Steven Hill
Published August 21st 2005 in The Phildelphia Inquirer
With members of Congress home for summer recess, the smoke is still clearing over the smoldering ruins of what's left to fiscal restraint and the federal budget. Even a Republican-controlled Congress can't seem to resist spending Americans' tax dollars. The incentives for each district representative and GOP leaders to bring home the bacon are too tempting to resist.

When Democrats were in control of Congress until 1994, Republicans routinely accused them of spending like drunken sailors on a Saturday-night binge. But now that the Republicans are in control of the cookie jar, look at the results.

As reported by the Washington Post, the recent highway bill is the most expensive public-works legislation in U.S. history, complete with 6,376 earmarked projects. Congress passed transportation and energy bills that busted cost limits established by President Bush. A massive water-projects bill authorized spending that would exceed current levels by 173 percent.

"If you look at fiscal conservatism these days, it's in a sorry state," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.). "Republicans don't even pretend anymore."

But Flake was nearly alone in his sentiment. He was one of only eight of the House's 435 members to vote against the $286.5 billion transportation bill that was passed the day before the recess. Democrats voted for it en masse as well. Yes, this pork was greased on both sides.

We could just blame it on human nature, or politicians' instinct for reelection, or both. But that would be too simplistic. The fact is, the very foundation of our political system, the single-seat, winner-take-all district, and the incentives of how you win elections and hold power in this system, are what drive both Republicans and Democrats to spend like there's no tomorrow.

If we used an at-large election system instead of single-seat districts to elect the U.S. House, pork-barrel incentives would be greatly diminished. Since representation wouldn't be so geography-based, neither would appropriations.

But with winner-take-all fiefdoms as the basis of our republic, there is tremendous incentive to grab federal dollars for your district.

Election strategies, especially in close races, favor giving away the store. When you are in control of the cookie jar, dispensing the cookies becomes an enormously enticing way to retain political control.

With neither Democrats nor Republicans willing to stop the spending or play much of a watchdog role, there's no one to check the bouts of excess.

Compare this with Vermont, where a third party called the Progressive Party holds six seats in the legislature. One of the Progressives' legislative roles has been to act as watchdog, exposing bad policies that both Democrats and Republicans support. In recent years, that has included a bipartisan corporate-welfare tax-credit program that was so wasteful that even the Wall Street Journal wrote an article criticizing it.

Lacking a third-party watchdog at the federal level, and with the winner-take-all system offering powerful incentives for pork-barrel gluttony, budgetary waste has been impossible to stop.

The real losers are the American taxpayers. Winner-take-all politics have made losers of us all. It's time to explore getting rid of our district-based electoral system before Congress spends the nation into bankruptcy.