December 1, 2010
Congressional Earmarks: Embracing and Ignoring a Message from VotersBy Jerry Shenk
As the installation of a new Congress with a Republican House majority and a larger Republican presence in the Senate approaches, the debate over congressional earmarks has resumed.
House Republicans seem ready to declare at least an earmark moratorium. After early resistance, most senior Senate Republicans accepted the people's November 2 verdict on earmarks, but the body, with eight foolish Republicans defending them, resolved to retain earmarks. Big mistake.
This year, among other disappointments, voters reacted to congressional Democrats' failure to keep Speaker Pelosi's promise to bring honesty, ethics, and openness to Congress, including earmark transparency and control.
Earmarks are the practice of requiring federal agencies to fund members' pet projects, some of which were denied funding through merit-based competitive bidding processes or formula-driven methods.
Earmarks -- unregulated, un-reviewed spending projects inserted into appropriations bills -- cost American taxpayers billions of dollars annually. Earmarks represent the worst of Washington's corruption and fiscal promiscuity. They are central to the overall crisis of runaway federal spending.
On the surface, they may not appear to be the most expensive problem in Washington, but earmarks contribute substantially to Congress's spending addiction and enable horrible bills that increase the size and cost of government.
There are good reasons for legislators to fear allowing earmarks to be opened up to serious public scrutiny. Pork corrupts the legislative process. Earmark approvals are used to buy floor votes. In the current Congress, liberal leadership in both houses used earmarks to buy members' votes on legislation ranging from the Stimulus Bill in the first week of the 111th Congress to the takeover of American health care.
In effect, earmarks constitute a bribery system that enables another bribery system -- buying constituent votes. Members of both parties are complicit. In fact, the practice of earmarking blossomed in the 1996 elections when Republicans used them to protect their new congressional majorities. From there, earmarks became institutionalized
An earmark's "worthiness" is irrelevant. The process by which the money is committed is far more important than a project's publicly-perceived value.
When your lawmaker defends an earmark because it's "a good cause" -- or even if you think it is -- pose a few simple questions: Were agency or congressional hearings conducted on the expenditure? Is the expenditure a legitimate national priority? Is/was the project competitively bid? Will there be appropriate oversight and follow-up to be certain the money was properly spent?
Expect stammering non-responses. By definition, an earmark bypasses all of those budgetary controls.
Earmarks are not really about local projects for legislators. By bringing home the bacon, members of Congress seek only to extend their political lives.
In other words, members use the taxes taken from voters' paychecks to preserve their own paychecks.
Taxpayers pay twice when a dysfunctional Congress allows legislators, while expanding government, to increase their campaign war chests with public funds to buy votes with pork.
As an example, earmarks, which avoid the aforementioned budgetary controls, account for roughly 10% of every transportation bill. In a sane world, no additional transportation dollars would be entrusted to Congress, but members larded up the Stimulus and subsequent appropriations bills with "shovel ready" special interest deals as well.
Defenders say that earmarks are simply reflections of local priorities. But the tax money to pay for them comes from people in every state, district, county, community, and taxpaying household. What's the sense of funneling the money through Washington and allowing national officeholders to decide who and what projects will receive it? If the money returns to states, counties, and communities anyway, then isn't the best way of serving local priorities to cut federal taxes, leaving the money in local hands and eliminating earmarks altogether?
If members' real concerns were for local priorities, they'd be running for mayor, city council, county commissioner, or state legislature, not for Congress.
We are also told, falsely, that earmarks don't increase the federal budget. The 2007 Water Bill is a prime example of how earmarks inflate appropriations. The House and the Senate each passed preliminary bills, one for $14 billion, the other $15 billion, both of which roughly doubled the agency-requested appropriation value. Rather than split the difference, as is customary, the House/Senate conference committee reported out a $23-billion bill -- more than half again each house's starting point, and greater than three times the original request. Both houses overrode the president's veto. The additional amount was for special projects inserted by members of Congress.
When legislators seeking to secure their reelections personally deliver big cardboard checks with their own names on the payer's line, when they summon local media to announce awards and smile into cameras on presentation, we are reminded of the smallness of their objectives.
It's never about voters, their states, or their districts. It's always about the congressman or senator. Those checks are meant to preserve members' prosperity. They have nothing to do with ours.
It's no stretch to imagine congressional earmark advocates running for Santa Claus as much as for office. Who doesn't like Santa? And who craves approval more than politicians?
Members want people to vote for them based on what voters were "given," but people have begun to understand that if Washington politicians are allowed to decide how taxpayer money will be spent and on what, especially at home, then voters allow government to intrude further into their lives and take away more of their choices.
Earmarks pick America's pockets a penny at a time. Every time an earmark is attached to a spending bill, every taxpayer's pocket is picked -- a penny here, a nickel there, twenty-five cents another time. How many petty thefts should taxpayers tolerate?
Former members of Congress are currently in prison, and others are under investigation to determine whether lawmakers made earmark decisions for personal gain. Lobbyists have been imprisoned for brokering earmarks, and more will likely do jail time as well.
If it is to restore integrity to the appropriations process, Congress must outlaw earmarks.