A few days ago, at the Laissez Faire Books blog, David M. Brown added a cautionary note to my May 7 praise of Claire McCaskill’s fight against the congressional earmark process. Although McCaskill has stood firm so far, refusing to dole out pork to her Missouri constituents, David isn’t so sure her stance will last:
McCaskill is under pressure from Democratic colleagues in both House and Senate to revise her distaste not for bloated rip-offs of the taxpayer per se but the way the bloated rip-offs are done. Stopping pork would not be a minor achievement: incumbents crave and exploit earmarks, and it would be a good first step to prevent them from furtively slipping pet projects into the spending bills and require them to discuss more openly how best to rip us off. And it’s only fair to wait and see what McCaskill does.
But the track record of politicos isn’t that auspicious. There have been a few principled congressmen in the modern era. But most of even the most anti-politics-as-usual newcomers to Washington tend to become mushier about their toe-the-line intentions the longer they’re in the capital, and regardless of partisan affiliation or alleged political philosophy.
In retrospect, I suppose congratulating a politician for not doling out taxpayer money hand over fist is sort of damning with faint praise. In a way, it reminds me of my Memorial Day weekend trip to my sister’s house, where my just-turned-three-year-old nephew was excited to let me know he could use a potty now. It feels silly to cheer effusively for someone using a toilet, but positive reinforcement helps cement his new skill as a step toward an ongoing civilized habit.
Simply doing the right thing isn’t an extraordinary accomplishment, it’s true. But it’s so far from the norm in politics, that I rush to offer positive reinforcement in the hopes that it might help in some small way to nudge a good political decision into a climate of ongoing political responsibility.