Free Markets, Free People
Most of us have known about it for decades:
A U.S. senator from Alabama directed more than $100 million in federal earmarks to renovate downtown Tuscaloosa near his own commercial office building. A congressman from Georgia secured $6.3 million in taxpayer funds to replenish the beach about 900 feet from his island vacation cottage. A representative from Michigan earmarked $486,000 to add a bike lane to a bridge within walking distance of her home.
Thirty-three members of Congress have directed more than $300 million in earmarks and other spending provisions to dozens of public projects that are next to or within about two miles of the lawmakers’ own property, according to a Washington Post investigation.
This is why earmarks need to go away for good.
Ask yourself how a person elected to office who essentially has nothing (in comparative terms) and ends up sleeping in his or her office to save rent somehow, after years in office, ends up going home worth millions.
It’s a common DC success story. And yet, no one seems to question it. It’s just quietly accepted as something that just happens apparently. It certainly isn’t a result of their salary, unless they are budget wizards and live on dust and water.
Most disturbing though is this:
Under the ethics rules Congress has written for itself, this is both legal and undisclosed.
Talk about the fox guarding the hen house.
Earmarks have long been controversial, with the focus on spending that unduly favors campaign donors or constituents. The Post’s review is the first systematic effort to examine the alignment of earmarks with lawmakers’ private interests.
Earmarks are a fraction of the federal budget, and the numbers uncovered by The Post are relatively small in the scheme of the overall Congress, but the behavior by lawmakers from both parties points to a larger issue at a time when confidence in Capitol Hill is at an all-time low.
Earmarks are a fraction of the federal budget – that’s true. But they are a perk that Congress has granted itself where lawmakers have the ability to loot the treasury in the name of their own interests (while using the façade of helping their district or state).
And it’s not the only perk. Insider trading for instance. President Obama brought it up in the SOTU address:
In response,the Senate last week passed legislation that would require lawmakers to disclose mortgages for their residences. The bill, known as the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (Stock) Act, would also require lawmakers and executive branch officials to disclose securities trades of more than $1,000 every 30 days.
I have about as much hope for that happening as Congress moving to prevent the use of earmarks. At the same time the Senate introduced the insider trading legislation it defeated an amendment, 59-40, that would have permanently outlawed earmarks.
Read the whole article – it’s a litany of what is wrong with our system. It incentivizes behavior like this and, it leave the policing of that system to the very people who benefit from it.
It is the very definition of “dysfunctional”.
It is easy to be cynical about politics today, especially for long-time observers. Years of watching fingers carefully placed in the political wind to determine its direction has given those watching the process a decided and well earned reason for cynicism.
But that has to be leavened somewhat with the understanding of how this political process works, why the incentives it offers is one of the main reasons it is broken, and then applaud actions which – no matter how seemingly small or insignificant they are – work toward changing those incentives in a meaningful way.
It has been said by many that “earmarks” are both trivial and insignificant when it comes to the budget deficit. They’re barely 1% of the budget. We’re told they’re no big thing in world of trillion dollar deficits.
Yes they are significant. For many reasons. Most obvious among them is they’re part of that incentive system that encourages profligacy and waste. As one wag pointed out, they’re the Congressional “gateway drug” for profligacy and waste on a much grander scale.
Secondly while it is easy to waive away “1%” of the budget as “insignificant”, you have to ask, “is it really?” Certainly in terms relative to a 2.8 trillion dollar budget, a few billion dollars doesn’t seem like much. But it is.
We know – all of us, even the left – that we must cut spending. Period. There’s no argument about that. The argument is where we cut. And how much. Cutting 1% of spending wrapped up in earmarks should be a “no-brainer”. It is a good first step. If you’re going to say to the country, “we’ve all got to cut back”, what better way – speaking of leadership – is there to make the point than to cut out spending that is advantageous to you politically.
That’s certainly the case with earmarks and has been for decades. It is the Congressional method of using tax dollars to help ensure a high return of incumbents on election day. So the symbolism involved in cutting them out is important. Especially, as I noted, when the country is going to be asked to take cuts in things which they find advantageous to themselves.
That all brings me to Sen. Mitch McConnell essentially reversing himself and signing on to the earmark ban. I’m cautiously optimistic that the GOP leadership is actually beginning to get the message that I think was transmitted loud and clear on November 2nd. Said McConnell:
“What I’ve concluded is that on the issue of congressional earmarks, as the leader of my party in the Senate, I have to lead first by example,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “Nearly every day that the Senate’s been in session for the past two years, I have come down to this spot and said that Democrats are ignoring the wishes of the American people. When it comes to earmarks, I won’t be guilty of the same thing.”
Good. What I’m not going to do is look this particular gift horse in the mouth and try to determine whether it is a cynical political ploy or genuine. I’m simply going to take it at face value and put a plus next to earmark reform. I’ll take McConnell at his word and demand that he now be consistent in applying the same received message to areas of spending that will indeed make a huge difference. Or said another way, I appreciate the sentiment and the symbolism of the earmark ban, but that doesn’t satisfy me or anyone else. It just indicates some seriousness and willingness to do what is necessary to rein in the government’s spending. While appreciated, it in no way means anything much more than that.
McConnell acknowledges the “wishes of the American people”. Those wishes were clearly expressed as a much smaller, much less costly and intrusive federal government. Banning earmarks is as good a place to start as any. But the serious work of cutting government down to size must continue immediately after the ban is in effect. The electoral gods will have no mercy on the GOP in 2012 if the American people don’t see a concerted effort by the party toward that goal.