Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Scarce Resource of Political Capital

A couple of days ago I participated in a round table discussion on the state of the economy. It was organized by the office of Representative David McKinley and included local business leaders and political actors. Two of Bethany's best students were there as well, about 12 overall.

While the main purpose of the meeting was sequestration, the businessmen wanted to express concerns about the EPA, making sure the congressman was aware of the barriers it sets up. The EPA's smothering them and, by extension, job creation. I emphasized regime uncertainty: the only way we're going to get the investment needed to bring job growth back up is for Congress to strike some kind of deal. There's too much uncertainty in the market. Everyone agreed, but I don't think people really got it.

Everyone seemed to believe that McKinley could do both: help strike a budget deal and weaken the EPA (and do other things, too). But he can't. He only has so much political capital to spend and making these things happen requires getting a lot of people on board. McKinely's a Republican so reigning in the EPA will upset some Democrats which will make it harder to strike a deal. And since he's a member of the Tea Party Caucus, increasing taxes is politically tricky, too. A common Sophie's choice in politics: what the country wants or what the constituents want. (Oh wait, that's not a good analogy; they will side with their constituents almost every time.)

This is why I like pork. If you think of it solely as a project (e.g. a bridge to no where), then yes, it's wasteful. No one seemed to like pork at the round table discussion and I regret I didn't defend it because pork makes things easier. If EPA deregulation and politically stable is what you buy with political capital, pork is a way to earn it.

Pork is cheap. Giving every Representative a $5 million pet project would cost a little less than $2.2 billion dollars. If that gives us a budget deal, we get stability and economic growth: that's worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Yes, it might take more than $5 million to get cooperation from some, but others won't require any pork. It's a good deal.

Political capital's a scarce resource. Like the money Congress is fighting over, you can't have everything. But if you sleep with the pigs, you might get enough to make everyone satisfied.