Much to the chagrin of The Newsroom‘s Will McAvoy, many Americans no longer get their news from prime-time news anchors like Walter Cronkite, let alone the humble messaging of Brian Williams. Shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and The Daily Show have supplemented traditional media as Millennials’ primary news sources. Mixing humor and sarcasm with real journalism has become the preferred way to share a political message.
Instead of relying on old-school charts and traditional (read: boring) means of communicating policy, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., for the past few years released an annual Government Wastebook that included clever comics, listicles and videos to highlight the absurdity and enormity of our government’s addiction to wasteful spending. While Sen. Coburn has retired, other legislators have an opportunity to pick up where he left off.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. has filled this void by producing BuzzFeed-style content to communicate the severity of the nation’s outrageous spending habits. Instead of an annual waste book, Sen. Flake releases a “weekly roasting of egregious federal spending” using the Twitter hashtag #PorkChops to promote his findings. Some of the highlights include:
- Draft Day Bust – An NFL Draft-themed report highlighting how the National Guard spent “between$97,500 and $115,000 to the NFL’s New York Jets for ‘advertising and promotion’ that fans may have assumed were genuine gestures to thank and recognize soldiers.” This report got traction as many were outraged that professional sports leagues are being paid by the U.S. military to “salute the troops.”
- Map Men – A Mad Men-themed graphic highlighting the wastefulness of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market Access Program, which will give away more than $170 million in taxpayer funding this year alone to trade associations to promote a number of specific products, including booze.
- House of PorkChops – In an homage to Netflix’s House of Cards, Sen. Flake’s team highlights a National Endowment for the Humanities transaction: “$28,397to purchase a 2015 Ford Transit Connect van,” for a library in Gaffney, S.C., the fictional hometown of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood.
For last week’s #PorkChop, Sen. Flake released an ominous trailer titled “Coming Soon: Jurassic Pork.” The spooky (if a bit cheesy) video featured a crazed pig running through the wilderness, spliced with clips of politicians claiming to end earmarks. Text then appears onscreen saying that “old earmarks have survived” and ends with a porked-out version of the “Jurassic Park” theme.
Well, the wait is over and today, Sen. Flake released his Jurassic Pork Act. As Flake’s office explains, this bill would “eliminate some of the ‘dinosaurs’ in the transportation earmark world that continue to live on.” According to the Congressional Research Service, dozens of earmarks worth more than $120 million remain on the books from laws dating from 1989 to 2004. This summer, more than 1,200 earmarks will officially hit “orphan” status, representing $2 billion in unobligated funds.
The Jurassic Pork Act would cancel funding for earmarks in which 90 percent of the money remains unused after 10 years of the project designation. The money would be sent back to the federal Highway Trust Fund.
With the HTF expected to hit bankruptcy later this summer, the Jurassic Pork Act is a viable option legislators should consider as part of a long-term solution to the highway funding crisis, which Congress has so far failed to address adequately.
While fixing the HTF’s insolvency isn’t as dramatic as a Steven Spielberg thriller, it is essential that Congress work to address wasteful spending. Too often, politicians reflexively throw more money at problems. Sen. Flake’s proposal sets a template for how legislators can reduce this kind of waste.
One hopes more legislators will learn from Sen. Flake’s approach to creative communications and pragmatic solutions. In the meantime, if you are looking for some fun commentary that creatively explains earmarks, wasteful spending and the Highway Trust Fund, might I suggest a double feature of Sen. Flake’s “Jurassic Pork” and John Oliver’s recent thriller “Infrastructure.”