We have been so distracted by the health-care debate that we collectively missed an important milestone. Back in 2006, Republicans larded legislation with 9,963 pork-barrel projects, according to calculations performed by Citizens Against Government Waste. In fiscal year 2009, Democrats spent a smidgen less money on 10,160 pork-barrel projects.
That number, of course, understates the problem, since it excludes special favors that are not explicit spending. Ben Nelson's shameful deal for Nebraska might be dishonorable, but it's technically not pork.
Where do all the special favors come from? The answer is simple, and widely accepted: lobbyists.
Lobbyists are the most amazingly productive workers in society. If National Review decided to end its archaic and indefensible opposition to pork and instead rally political support for the William F. Buckley Jr. Museum--to be funded by taxpayers and placed on the Mall--it could probably achieve its goal by hiring the right lobbyist.
And while hot lobbyists are expensive--Heather Podesta's six-person firm is reported to have made $3.4 million this year--they are worth every penny. A recent study by University of Kansas professors Raquel Meyer Alexander, Stephen W. Mazza, and Susan Scholz found that lobbying expenditures on one 2004 tax provision provided $220 worth of benefits for each dollar spent. As a Ph.D.-holding economist, I can assure you with great certainty that 22,000 percent is a good return on investment.
But for those of us who have not played the lobbying game, the process is extremely disconcerting. Lobbyists often twist the attention of legislators away from the nation's problems and funnel taxpayer resources toward narrow interests.
They are so good at what they do that subtle variations in their numbers have a visible impact on congressional approval. The chart below compares the ups and downs of congressional approval, as measured by averaging the year's Gallup-poll data against the number of lobbyists. The negative correlation implies that the more lobbyists there are working in Washington, the lower will be Congress's approval. Voters know when their money is being squandered.
The correlation is statistically significant, and sizable. Congress could, all else equal, increase its approval rating from today's 25 percent to 50 percent simply by sending 1,500 lobbyists to Guantanamo. Maybe that's why they haven't closed it yet.
Kevin A. Hasssett is a senior fellow and the director of economic policy studies at AEI.