Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Socialized to Spend Money


Washington. -- With the tides of anti-incumbent sentiment lapping higher and higher, Washington's hands stop trembling only when Washington is wringing its hands in unfeigned horror about the coming constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. A sufficient reason for ratifying the amendment is the horror it inspires in the political class that has transformed American democracy into "autonarchy."

That word was coined by James L. Payne, a scholar who has taught at Yale and Johns Hopkins and elsewhere. He asked a simple question and in answering it came up with some stunning statistics that he reported in The Public Interest quarterly two years ago -- and nothing much has changed since then. His question was: Why do members of the House and Senate support so many spending programs? One reason, he found, is that almost no one testifies against spending.

He analyzed the testimony of 1,060 witnesses in 14 hearings on proposed spending. Seven witnesses opposed spending, 39 were neutral -- they testified about something else -- and 1,014 favored spending. This 145-to-1 ratio reflects Washington's inbred persuasion process.

Mr. Payne says that people suppose, because democratic theory teaches, that Congress responds primarily to individuals and groups "out there," beyond the Beltway. Not so, says Mr. Payne. "Overwhelmingly, Congress' views on spending programs are shaped by government officials themselves."

Of the 1,060 witnesses he studied, 47 percent were federal administrators, 10 percent were state or local government officials and 6 percent were U.S. senators or representatives testifying to colleagues. So 63 percent represented government acting as an interest group.

Another 33 percent were lobbyists for groups purporting to be, and generally perceived to be, private-sector institutions. But, Mr. Payne says, many of these groups are "semi-governmental entities." Often their leaders are former government officials socialized in government's benign view of its own motives and competence. Furthermore, many of these groups are extensions government in that they receive government contracts and grants. He cites the National Council of Churches, the National Education Association, the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

Government's peculiar persuasion process also includes billions of government dollars spent hiring consultants to evaluate government programs or the need for programs. These consultants are not famous for frowning on the work of the government agencies that hire them, any more than the agencies are famous for hiring politically unsympathetic evaluators. The evaluators are socialized for sympathy. Many are former government officials inclined to favor what government wants: more. An evaluator who wants to be invited back to the federal banquet will, when confronted with a failing program, prescribe "better management" and more money.

Mr. Payne says that when he discussed his 145-to-1 finding with congressional staffers they were surprised -- surprised it was so low. He also found -- no surprise, this -- that among representatives and senators, Republicans as well as Democrats, support for spending increases as tenure does.

There are two reasons for a broad correlation between length of service and enthusiasm for spending. One is the socialization into the government mentality. Another is that spending is the principal way members achieve long tenures.

Today, for example, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, Joseph McDade, is in serious legal trouble but no political trouble. He has been indicted for racketeering, conspiracy and accepting bribes. He shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty, but he can be presumed guilty of what he boasts about and what causes his constituents to care not at all about his legal troubles: He is a billion-dollar industry for his district.

Pennsylvania's tenth district -- Scranton and its environs -- used to be coal country. Today it relies on a different kind of extraction, its 15-term congressman's mining of the U.S. Treasury. Federal, state and local governments have collaborated with each other's growth. The scores of millions he has won for Scranton's "Steamtown," the notorious boondoggle a railroad museum, is just a fraction of the estimated $1 billion he has shoveled to his voters.

They are not ingrates. Not since 1976 has a Democratic opponent held him below 65 percent of the vote. He was unopposed in 1990. This year he won not only the Republican nomination but also, by a write-in campaign, the Democratic nomination. Next year he will begin his fourth decade as a participant in American . . . what? Democracy? Maybe. But Mr. Payne's analysis of Washington's incestuous closed circle of government in conversation with itself led him to muse about a question of typology.

If rule by a king is monarchy, and rule by a single individual is autocracy, and rule by a few is oligarchy, and rule by the people -- the demos -- is democracy, what word describes government that controls itself? Payne suggests "autonarchy."

Ugly word. Ugly fact. Good reason for a balanced-budget amendment.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad