The Return of Earmarks?

Ominous signals from Congress that groundbreaking reforms may soon be reversed.

r620-921c71eafb5ae62d70f90f236fc7e7c3Last week members of the Senate Republican Steering Committee met over lunch to discuss the potential revival of that long-gone facet of backroom politics: the congressional earmark. Given the Committee’s direct involvement in the Senate and House rule-making process and Harry Reid’s defense of earmarks on the Senate floor earlier that week, it’s perhaps time Americans were given a re-cap on the vileness that is earmarking.

To remind, earmarking is the tailoring of certain pieces of legislation in order to reward targeted congressional members with federal spending in their districts and states. It is spending used solely to push narrow political interests, such as pet projects or awards to donors, rather than the interests of the broad American public. Because spending provisions that are earmarked are usually negotiated privately in congressional committees, where deals can be arranged to advance personal and political goals, the practice evades the usual procedures for public debate and expert review.

Because of an initiative started by President George W. Bush, which was later copied by President Obama, earmarking was banned in the House and Senate in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Since then, thanks to these moratoriums, this non-transparent and ethically questionable practice has pretty much ended and tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer funds have been saved.

The ban on earmarks was partly in response to the 2005 "Bridge to Nowhere" debacle which involved a fishing village on Alaska’s Gravina Island. Despite having a population of around 50 Tsimshian natives, inserted into that year’s transportation bill was a provision for the island to receive a 9,000-foot-long bridge, which, if then-Governor Sarah Palin hadn’t stepped in, would’ve cost taxpayers nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.

Your average politician’s voracious drive for re-election and desire to stay in office is what fuels these types of abusive projects. Describing his tenure as Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Don Young, the Representative for Alaska responsible for the "Bridge to Nowhere" earmark, said at the time of the controversy, “I’d be silly if I didn’t take advantage of my chairmanship… I think I did a good job.” Rep. Young is still in office and is no doubt supportive of an earmark revival.

It is key committee chairmen like Young who benefit most from earmarked spending, as they have the most power during bill mark-ups. Since chairman-roles are usually held by the most senior incumbents, the districts and states that get the big earmarked dollars generally depends on who has the most seniority and power in Congress. Young, in fact, is the fourth most senior representative in House. In a perverse feedback loop, the practice of earmarking leads to more support from constituents, which then leads to greater entrenchment of the incumbent, which leads to more and bigger earmarks. Breaking such a system is difficult and it explains why the practice persisted for many decades before Tea Party activism in the mid-2000s finally forced Congress to act. 

That earmarks help powerful, senior incumbents is worrisome, but most troubling is that earmarks lead to bad legislation. As House Speaker Boehner has noted, “You take the earmarks away and guess what? All of a sudden people are beginning to look at the real policy behind it.” By banning earmarks, our representatives have to consider whether the entire bill is good for their district and the country. This is of course what the Founders intended.

Notable is the connection the mainstream media routinely makes between congressional gridlock and "Tea Party intransigence." The refrain from liberal pundits usually goes something like, "Obama’s forced to push through initiatives like amnesty because the Republicans in the House just can’t seem to control Tea Party extremists!” The more convincing explanation for this slowdown, however, is simply the current restraint on Committee members from earmarking for on-the-fence members. Without grease on the wheels the legislative machine does begin to slow down. But in a country that has on its books 4,000 federal criminal laws and counting, there is no urgency for new bills. It’s certainly better to have higher quality bills that are good for all the American people.  

The caveat of course is that we have a lawless and tyrannical president who, because of a "gridlocked" Congress, feels the need to push through his own initiatives, just like he did with administrative amnesty. But as long as we force our representatives to stand up to the President, we can end such abuse, just like we ended earmarks.

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