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Eye on the News

John M. Murtagh
Some Wine with Your Pork, Congressman?
In Washington, New York, and all over the country, it’s business as usual, as usual.
6 March 2009

When it’s time to pick a nice wine, I usually order beer. It’s not my fault, really. My people hail from the west coast of Ireland, not the west coast of France. County Mayo has many things to recommend it; vineyards are not among them. Still, I can enjoy the occasional playful Chardonnay or plummy Merlot now and again. And wine has been on my mind a good bit lately, since I’ve been wondering what vintage goes best with pork.

To find out, I may have to call Congressman Maurice Hinchey, a New York Democrat who seems to enjoy pairing the grape with the pork. How else to explain the $2.19 million in taxpayer dollars that he recently earmarked for the Center for Grape Genetics in Geneva, New York? Oh, I know what you’re thinking: “Here we go again, another congressman hiding hometown favors deep in a spending bill” (in this case, the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill that the House of Representatives passed last week). But Hinchey is hiding nothing. In a two-page press release, he unabashedly boasts that he’s “excited about all the great agricultural research” that these funds will buy.

The press release goes on, by the way, to tout a “national economic impact study” recently conducted by the Congressional Wine Caucus. You heard right. We apparently have a wine caucus on Capitol Hill. The mind reels. Do the juniormost members of the minority get stuck on the Boone’s Farm subcommittee, while the majority members on the powerful Shiraz Task Force jet off on fact-finding missions to coastal Australia?

The Center for Grape Genetics is but a drop in the cask of Hinchey’s earmarks. His release also proudly notes the $1.45 million that he secured for the “Viticulture Consortium” for “mission specific research relevant to grape growing”; $346,000 for “Apple Fire Blight Research” to “manage” that particular scourge; and $1.04 million for the “genetic evaluation of cattle.” Now that’s bipartisanship: pork for beef.

Of course, I single out the congressman from central New York unfairly. In their own districts, his colleagues across the nation have their own versions of the Center for Grape Genetics. We’ve all read the reports of swine-odor research in Iowa and asparagus research in Washington State. According to most accounts, some 9,000 pet projects made it into this latest congressional spending bill. On the state level, all 50 capitals see some version of the same process. Here in New York, we call them “member items,” and they provide thousands upon thousands of handouts for everything from Little League uniforms to the “Council on Jewish Poverty”—a no doubt worthwhile organization coincidentally run by the husband of Assemblyman Sheldon Silver’s chief of staff.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid defends the whole sloppy process by reasoning that it’s better to have our elected officials making our spending decisions than “a bunch of nameless, faceless government bureaucrats.” Of course, nobody likes nameless, faceless government bureaucrats, so it’s easy to make that argument. Echoing Reid, Jim McGovern, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, told the Boston Globe, “I know more about my district than some faceless bureaucrat in Washington.” No doubt he’s right, but that’s beside the point. His responsibility is not just to know what’s going on in his district, but to know and consider how its needs fit into the nation’s needs as a whole.

And are nameless, faceless politicians really any better than nameless, faceless bureaucrats? There are 535 senators and representatives in Washington and thousands and thousands of state legislators across the country. Can we afford to have every one of them, one by one, deciding how to spend our limited dollars in willy-nilly fashion? We can see the results: funds for studying the DNA of grapes and the body odor of pigs quickly crowd out spending on basic infrastructure, education, and the like. I’m no defender of the current spending binge. But if spend we will, we must at least avoid the waste, abuse, and inefficiency that result when thousands of little dukes and duchesses carve up the pie without regard to what is going on in the duchy next door—never mind the kingdom as a whole.

John Murtagh, a practicing attorney, is serving his second term on the Yonkers City Council. In 2008 he was a candidate for the New York State Senate.

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