Of apples, oranges and earmarks

The big political polling news last week was that nearly half of Americans either don’t want their congressman bringing home federal money for local projects or don’t care whether he does.

That’s my spin, anyway.

But that’s not how a Pew survey conducted for the National Journal got reported, which is to say spun.

The most prominently reported finding was that 53 percent of Americans say they will be more likely to vote for their congressman if he brings home federal money for projects.

From that the National Journal contorted gymnastically to declare that Americans aren’t opposed to “earmarks” after all, despite the vitriol.

But the issue with earmarks isn’t the securing of federal money for local projects. The issue is the process by which a congressman plugs that money into a broader bill arbitrarily, unilaterally and without transparency.

You shouldn’t poll apples and then draw conclusions about oranges.

A poll is a poll is a poll. I am always amused when politicians argue about the plain numbers. They are what they are.

While it is true that the phrasing of questions can influence results, there’s no dishonesty in asking leading questions so long as these questions are disclosed. In fact, that can provide a worthy assessment of how public attitudes are influenced by varying presentations of issues.

I have no objection to this poll. I have no objection to the question, so long as it was disclosed, as it was. It merely asked respondents whether their congressman’s performance in securing federal money for local purposes would make them more likely to vote for that congressman, or less likely, or whether they simply didn’t care about that in their consideration of how to vote, or whether they simply had no idea.

The 53 percent finding in the category of “more likely,” widely reported as a victory for pork barrel as usual, actually was comically low. The remarkable thing was that 4.7 in 10 respondents said either they didn’t care, didn’t know or even would be less inclined to vote for their congressman if he started coming around with wads of federal bucks.

The aversion to federal spending seems to have become pervasive. Perhaps that’s why, in Arkansas, a powerful chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee trails badly in polls to a Republican vowing not to do any earmarks.

But, again, this poll did not ask about earmarks. It asked about a congressman’s diligence and influence in going to bat for his district in what might well be an accountable and transparent way. There are ways to secure federal money for federal purposes locally without earmarking, you see.

To assess real public attitudes on earmarks, the poll would have required a question like this: Would you be more likely to vote for your congressman, or less likely, or would it make no difference to you, if your congressman, acting alone, added a line to an appropriations bill directing money in a way that he personally dictated, an amount that would either increase the federal deficit or force the agency spending the money to make cuts in authorized spending elsewhere?

I suspect the “more likely” number would have dropped below 53 percent on that query, both from respondents finding the described action to be unfair and from respondents availing themselves of a fourth option, that being “I don’t understand the question.”

Earmarks take a lot of forms. That special “Cornhusker Kickback” for Nebraska’s Medicaid program that U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson got Harry Reid to plug into the health care reform bill for a time, in defiance of vast committee work done in public previously — that was, while not called an earmark, kind of one.

I don’t think 53 percent of Americans liked it at all.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

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