Cochran's Victory and the Tragedy of the Budget Commons

The recent Republican Senate primary in Mississippi no doubt turned on many factors such as the character of the candidates. But the victory by Thad Cochran, the establishment Republican Senator, also underscores an unfortunate consequence of our system of government.  The Constitution itself creates a structure that favors senators who promise to direct federal dollars to the state rather than to limit government spending.  This structure facilitated the central premise of Senator Cochran’s campaign:  with his seniority he could bring home the bacon.

The Constitution requires that Senators be elected from each state and thus Senators are more responsive to state rather than national constituencies. As a result, each Senator (and member of the House of Representatives for that matter) has an incentive to secure pork barrel legislation for his state despite any economic losses to the nation. And his constituents will  generally not object, because almost all of the money to pay for in-state benefits comes from other states.

In short, the Framers’ decision to make representation wholly local rather than to have legislators elected from a national list, as is the case in some other democracies, creates a tragedy of the commons.   Each representative will overgraze the federal budget at the expense of the nation’s prosperity. Sadly, the infamous Bridge to Nowhere was a feature, not a bug of our constitutional republic.  The feature also explains why Congress as whole remains unpopular, but yet most individual members of Congress are reelected.

This inherent defect in our constitutional structure has three policy implications.  First, collective decisions by members of Congress to limit the ability to bring back benefits to their state are to be welcomed. The anti-earmarking rules enacted by recent Congresses, largely at the behest of Tea Party Republicans helped correct this constitutional defect.  Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom showed that the tragedy of the commons can be overcome when participants set rules or establish norms that limit wasteful behavior.  Earmarking prohibitions provide an example of this potential in the context of the federal government.

Second, while many complain about campaign contributions and spending originating outside the state, such funds can help correct the tendency for overspending.  Outsiders are more likely to focus on the national benefits provided by limited government.  To be sure, some outsiders may urge bigger government for ideological reasons, but the net effect of outside influence is likely to dilute the local influence, which will be relentless in favor local spending.

Third, this structure of the Constitution underscores the importance of the President in limiting spending.  The President is the single elected federal representative accountable to a national constituency.  In fact, it may be rational for voters to elect a President who favors lower spending  than they themselves do in order to counteract an  inherently free spending Congress.