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Congress Needs to Bring Back Earmarks

Congress Needs to Bring Back Earmarks →

I dislike Congressional earmarks, as I dislike all wasteful government spending. I've long viewed them as bribes that corrupt the political process, by inducing Congressmen to vote for legislation that they'd otherwise oppose.

I'm rethinking my opposition, after reading Tyler Cowen's essay at Bloomberg View.

In essence, earmarks give congressional leaders more control over individual members. Recalcitrant representatives can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district. That eases gridlock and gives extreme members of Congress something to pursue other than just ideology.

But is more legislation always a good result? Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress. Gridlock today is not the friend of fiscal responsibility, coherent policy, or a free, well-functioning capitalist economy.

Most of all, I think of earmarks as recognizing that compromise and messiness are bound to remain essential features of American government, and that, whether we like it or not, there is something inherently transactional about being governed. Earmarks are a risk insurance policy against extreme outcomes, and like many other insurance policies, in any given year they may appear a pointless waste of resources. Still, we should keep in mind they may be protecting us against the very worst outcomes.

Flight Delays, Courtesy of Congress

Delays are caused by flight volumes that the FAA Administrator's ineptly-managed Air Traffic Control system cannot handle. The skies are full, not because there's no more room in the air, but because the flight controllers can't keep up with any more flights.

What's Congress's solution to this problem? Why, funding a Peace Garden instead of updating air-traffic control towers.

Want to know what had to be cut from the bill in order to get the North Dakota Peace Garden? Oh, just a silly little project that would have updated technology in air-traffic control towers. But the Peace Garden wasn't the only beneficiary of freeing up funds from making air travel safer. California will also get a "mule and packer museum". Perhaps Americans can start traveling by donkey instead.

Senator Tom Coburn attempted to stop the pork party, to no avail. He offered an amendment that would have forbidden earmarks on transportation bills until all deficient bridges had been properly updated. That just barely failed -- by a vote of 82 to 14. Eighty-two Senators voted to prioritize pork over infrastructure maintenance.

In fact, the pork comes to one out of every eight dollars spent on transportation now. In the past eleven years, earmarks have increased a whopping 1150%, while the dollar value of the pork has increased over 300% in the same period. Ninety-nine percent of these earmarks bypassed planning agencies, meaning that the monies got no review for prioritization. How many bridges could have been repaired with that money over the last decade?

Still believe that Congress should manage a multi-trillion dollar budget? Still believe that government is more interested in your safety and well-being than a private company would be? Private companies would be embarrassed to run the air-traffic control system that the FAA runs. Private companies would be embarrassed to have roads and bridges as well-maintained as the governments.

Don't put your faith in government spending. It's the worst "investment" you could possibly make.

Dedicated to Waste

Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens (supposedly a Republican) seems dedicated to wasting money -- he's setting aside Federal money for the development of baby food made from salmon. I'm not sure why this is a Federal issue. Millions of children have grown up without the benefit of baby food made from salmon. I do know that it's just one more wasteful use of my tax dollars. If you want to know why my wife and I complain about losing $600 a month to the Federal government -- this is one of those reasons.

Senator -- if you believe in the project so much, please put your own money into it. Don't put my money into it and then try to tell me that you're doing it for my own good.

(Hat tip to Radley Balko.)

Lobbying "Reform"

The Senate missed two golden opportunities to reform the lobbying process yesterday. First, they chose not limit earmarks (hat tip to Captain's Quarters in future appropriations bills. Given that earmarks are one of the largest sources of purely wasteful spending that the Congress engages in, this is a big disappointment.

Earmarks are pet spending projects that Senators can attach to almost any bill. Currently, multiple earmarks are bundled together into a bill, then voted on as a package. Earmarks also provide plenty of opportunity for lawmakers to reward lobbyists who donate to a Senator's campaign.

Secondly, the Senate voted down the Coburn / Obama amendment to the lobbying bill. This amendment "directs the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to establish a publicly available database of the more than $300 billion the federal government spends each year via contracts and grants to more than 30,000 groups, businesses and organizations."

Nothing would limit government corruption like creating a giant database that shows exactly who the money goes to. This database would quickly expose any politician that tried to give away taxpayers' money to family, friends, or lobbyists. It's somewhat surprising, then, that Senator Trent Lott felt compelled to raise a "Rule 22 Point of Order" when the amendment was brought up for a vote.

The Senate's Rule 22 refers to the germaneness - i.e. relevance - of a proposed amendment. Translated from the Washington legislatese in which senators and congressmen so often hide, this means Lott thinks making sure the public can see who is getting more than $300 billion of their tax dollars has nothing to do with congressional ethics.

Put another way, Lott just told taxpayers to butt out.

Yes, indeed. Senator Lott doesn't think that knowing where the money goes is relevant to lobbying reform. I wonder why that is Senator? Do you have anything you'd like to hide from the American people? Or do you just believe that being accountable to the voter is an idea who's time has not yet come?

Once again, I'm disappointed in the Senate Republicans. For a party facing a tough election year, they're certainly not doing anything to inspire the voters, excite fiscal conservatives, or even show that they're aware of the election.

[tags]earmarks, pork[/tags]

This entry was tagged. Earmarks Pork


Larry Kudlow reported this morning on a pathetic state of affairs in the U.S. Senate. Currently, Senator Gregg's (R-N.H.) Budget Committee is writing and debating the Senate's budget resolution. So far, the commitee has managed to drop out entitlement cuts and is currently working on adding even more pork to the budget. Good job guys. You've succeeded in completely losing whatever small modicum of support I was willing to give to Congressional Republicans.

Let me make this perfectly clear: from this moment on, I will actively work to defeat every Republican Congressman or Senator up for reelection. I will actively work to reelect every Democrat Congressman or Senator up for reelection. For out of state races, I will donate money to Democrat candidates, not Republican candidates. For in-state races, I will make phone calls and literature drops on behalf of Democrat candidates. I will do anything and everything I can to ensure that only Democrats are elected. There is only one thing you can do to change my mind: grow a backup and stand up for the American taxpayer. Short of that, I see no reason why I should work for a Republican majority rather than a Democrat majority.

To all Republicans working to cut the budget -- you'd better find a way to convince your big spending colleagues to toe the line. You might start out by reminding them of all of the Congressional perks and committee assignments that they'll lose if Republicans lose the majority. At this point, I see no reason to give time, money, or effort to the Republican party as long as it is unserious about practicing fiscal conservatism. True, Democrats won't be any better. On the other hand, if big-spending budget bills are passed by a Democrat majority, President Bush just might remember where he hid the veto pen.

I'm willing to gamble. Are you?

The Necessity of Killing Pork

If you have any doubts whatsoever about the desparate need for reforming government spending, I'd invite you to read The Great American Pork Barrel from Harper's Magazine. I am disgusted by the manner in which our Congressional "representatives" act when spending the nation's tax dollars.

There was no time to produce a clean copy, so the version of the omnibus bill that Congress voted on was a fourteen-inch-thick clump of papers with corrections, deletions, and additions on virtually every page. Handwritten notes peppered the margins; typefaces varied from section to section and from paragraph to paragraph. First made available to lawmakers at around 12:15 A.M. on November 20 (and only to those who happened to be browsing the House Rules Committee website, where it was posted), the omnibus bill came to a vote before the full House some sixteen hours later, at approximately 4:00 that afternoon, and before the Senate at 8:42 that evening. For the legislators who approved it"”by a margin of 344"’51 in the House and 65"’30 in the Senate"”reading the 3,320-page bill before the vote would have been a mathematical impossibility.

As approved at the November 17 appropriations meeting, the Foreign Operations bill had contained a mere nine earmarks. The omnibus measure, which was completed after two feverish days of work, allocated money for 11,772 separate earmarks. ... In the end, the bill's earmarks were worth a combined total of nearly $16 billion"”a figure almost as large as the annual budget of the Department of Agriculture and roughly twice that of the Environmental Protection Agency. It was the biggest single piece of pork-barrel legislation in American history.

If you still believe that Congress should be in charge of medical care, education, retirement savings, and a host of other issues, I'd love to hear your reasons why. Any business that operated in this manner would find itself facing bankruptcy in short order. That supposedly mature adults would behave in this manner is frightening.

Killing the Porker

Thanks goes to Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold for co-sponsoring the Pork Barrel Reduction Act along with Senators Coburn, McCain, Bayh, Kyl, Ensign, Graham, Sununu, DeMint, and Cornyn. Pork Busters is asking for you to help get this bill passed. Many people in the Senate (I'm looking at you, Senators Murkoswki and Stevens) will oppose this effort to reign in government waste.

You can read the full text of the Pork Barrel Reduction Act (S.2265) online and track the Senators who support it and oppose it.

Wasting Your Inheritance

The Heritage Foundation has published a new report entitled "Federal Spending: By the Numbers". If you value fiscal conservatism, if you value living within your means, if you wish your government shared your values, you'll find this to be a depressing read. If this keeps up, we'll have nothing to leave our children -- the government will have taken it all in taxes, leaving our children and grandchildren with nothing but debt and memories of prosperity. Courtesy of Captains Quarters:

However, federal spending has kept the pace of the expansion in revenues. Last year's budget came in at $2.472T, and this year we expect to spend $2.77T, according to estimates released this week. Of that money, $969B comes in so-called discretionary spending, up $300B since 2001. But by far and away the worst of the bill comes in entitlement spending, which went to $1.32T last year, up from $1.009 in 2001. As a measure of the rate of increase in both areas, discretionary spending has increased 93% since 1990, but entitlements have gone up 132%, while revenues have increased by 109%.

Where has the increase come? Some of it has gone to national defense, but not all of it. In fact, the federal budget has grown across the board since 2001, outstripping inflation (12% overall) in several categories, such as Education (137%), Community and Regional Development (342%), Medicare (58%), Housing and Commerce (58%), Medicaid (49%), and Water Transportation (46%). Do you like the idea of nationalized health care? We may be heading there by default, as the federal budget for Health Research and Regulation has grown by 78% since 2001 and now consumes $76B of our budget.