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”.
I assume none of these names will come as a particular surprise to anyone. 8 GOP Senators joined Democrats in voting down a ban on earmarks for the next two-years. They were:
Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), James Inhofe (Okla.), Dick Lugar (Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Richard Shelby (Ala.) voted against an amendment to food-safety legislation that would have enacted a two-year ban on the spending items. Retiring Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio) and defeated Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah) also voted against it.
Of the 8, only one – Dick Lugar – faces reelection in 2012.
As has been said by many, the ban on earmarks is mostly symbolic since the amount of funds earmarked each year are a veritable drop in the ocean compared to the rest of the federal budget. But the symbolism of members of the Senate foregoing a spending tradition dear to incumbents to emphasize that government in all areas must cut back on its spending would have been a powerful one indeed. Instead
Instead, the usual suspects decided that midnight drop-in earmarks unvoted upon or debated, are absolutely critical to the functioning of the federal government and funding projects in their state.
Of course, somewhere in the next few years, all 8 of them will “go on the record” about wasteful spending. They’ll also claim we must cut spending in all areas of government.
But when given the opportunity to put their words into action – well, there are the results.
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.
One of the unstated questions many of us who have observed the Tea Party ask is how long before it become co-opted by one of the major parties. Because it is mostly a leaderless movement, that may end up being a very unlikely thing. But what about the candidates it backed? We’re told that 5 Senators and about 30 or so representatives were backed by local and regional Tea Parties and won their elections.
One of those was Rand Paul who, as the son of Ron Paul, came off as particularly libertarian in his approach to his job as a Senator from Kentucky. In fact, during his campaign, he made what his campaign web site labeled "Rand’s no-pork pledge":
Rand Paul appreciates Republican Senator Jim DeMint introducing today a one-year ban on earmark spending and a balanced-budget amendment. Rand strongly supports both initiatives and has made them centerpieces of his campaign for limited government, including his signing of the Citizens Against Government Waste “No pork pledge.”
“The Tea Party movement is an effort to get government under control,” Rand said. “I’m running to represent Kentuckians and to dismantle the culture of professional politicians in Washington. Leadership isn’t photo-ops with oversized fake cardboard checks. That kind of thinking is bankrupting our nation. Senator DeMint understands that and has taken action to stop it.”
It was that pledge along with other such promises that saw Paul ride a wave to electoral victory.
However, and it seems in politics today, there’s always a "however", it seems that even before taking office, Paul is having second thoughts about his pledge. Veronique de Rugy at the Corner points us to a quote in a Wall Street Journal article about Rand Paul which is, well, disappointing, to be kind about it:
In a bigger shift from his campaign pledge to end earmarks, he tells me that they are a bad “symbol” of easy spending but that he will fight for Kentucky’s share of earmarks and federal pork, as long as it’s doled out transparently at the committee level and not parachuted in in the dead of night. “I will advocate for Kentucky’s interests,” he says.
Of course there are plenty of ways to "advocate for Kentucky’s interests" without breaking a pledge. That, of course, requires a politician with imagination and the courage of his convictions.
If the quote is accurate, then I have no doubt that Rand Paul will rationalize and justify his way into becoming just another establishment Republican Senator who sells out (in this case, almost immediately) to the “system” in DC. Another in a long line of “go-along-to get-along-old-boy-network” that is within virtual inches of destroying this country.
I have to wonder how the Tea Party movement, which spent so much time, effort and money to get this guy elected feels about this quote? I’ll be interested to hear Paul’s explanation concerning what the WSJ says he said.
But frankly, and assuming he wasn’t misquoted, it’s another indication that much of our political class is a collection of opportunists whose only real quest is the accumulation of personal power. They’ll say whatever it takes to win with no intention of sticking with the principles they claim. While, as Paul says, earmarks are indeed more symbolic that significant, they were significant enough when he was seeking office to take a pledge not to seek them. A pledge voluntarily taken by someone who, as usual, styled himself as “different” and an “outsider” who was going to change the way we do business.
Instead, at the first opportunity, he back-peddles and attempts to rationalize breaking his pledge to “advocate for Kentucky’s interests”.
I hope it’s not true but in reality it appears to be business as usual.
I suppose I should be surprised at this, but I’m not. Mitch McConnell seems now to believe that earmarks are a hallowed legislative prerogative, and Rep. Jerry Lewis is keen to retake the gavel of the Appropriations Committee.
Basically, the deal is this: After talking a good game about fiscal conservatism for months, the GOP is going to take its cues in the Senate from a guy who basically doesn’t give that much of a crap, and very likely empower a guy in the House whose top priorities have previously included money pit swimming pools into which he likes to dump massive, great, heaping piles of your hard-earned cash because, hey, he’s in charge here, dammit.
I don’t like it; you don’t like it. Let’s hope that by some miracle, folks calling the shots up on the Hill might possibly be paying attention to what everyone from the Tea Partiers to me, your local candy-ass RINO, thinks: Quit with the earmarks, and let’s not just empower the people who pursued them with zeal last time the GOP was in charge, because well screw it, we won… kind of…
So, is that the deal? Head fake to the right on spending for the Tea Party during the election, but back to business as usual after winning? Are the 2006 Republicans back?
If so, it’s gonna be a long two years, and 2012 is gonna be a nightmare.
They’re shameless when it comes to building personal monuments to themselves or to boosting their re-election chances – they’ll even take funds designated for a military fighting two wars to do it:
Senators diverted $2.6 billion in funds in a defense spending bill to pet projects largely at the expense of accounts that pay for fuel, ammunition and training for U.S. troops, including those fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to an analysis.
Among the 778 such projects, known as earmarks, packed into the bill: $25 million for a new World War II museum at the University of New Orleans and $20 million to launch an educational institute named after the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.
Senator Tom Coburn expresses my sentiment in a much more moderated tone than I’m feeling right now:
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, called the transfer of funds from Pentagon operations and maintenance “a disgrace.”
“The Senate is putting favorable headlines back home above our men and women fighting on the front lines,” he said in a statement.
Come on Senator – there’s an election approaching. Diverting money from training, fuel, maintenance and ammunition accounts to help their chances to retain power is much more important that the lives of our troops in combat.
Honoring a dead Kennedy certainly takes priority over teaching some young warrior how to avoid being killed in combat. Another museum in a key state is much more important than ensuring soldiers are able to maintain the equipment necessary to their survival. And, of course, they don’t need that much ammo – do they?
I’ll stop here, but my disgust for the political pigs engaged in this sort of looting knows no depth or bounds. They’d steal the coins off a dead man’s eyes if they thought it would help them politically. And that disgust extends to those who do the same thing without endangering our troops. It is just a matter of degree, not kind.
This is just pathetic:
President Barack Obama signed a $410 billion spending bill Wednesday that includes thousands of pet projects inserted by lawmakers, even as he unveiled new rules to restrict such so-called earmarks.
At the same time, after Democrats criticized former President George W. Bush’s signing statements, Mr. Obama issued one of his own, declaring five provisions in the spending bill to be unconstitutional and nonbinding, including one aimed at preventing punishment of whistleblowers.
Presidents have employed signing statements to reject provisions of a bill without vetoing the entire legislation. Democrats and some Republicans have complained that Mr. Bush abused such statements by declaring that he would ignore congressional intent on more than 1,200 sections of bills, easily a record. Mr. Obama has ordered a review of his predecessor’s signing statements and said he would rein in the practice.
“We’re having a repeat of what Democrats bitterly complained about under President Bush,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), who drafted legislation to nullify Mr. Bush’s signing statements.
The president said the spending measure should “mark an end to the old way of doing business.” His proposals, seconded by the House Democratic leadership, followed days of attacks by Republicans — and some Democrats — over the spending for local projects tucked into the bill.
This is an example of what I was talking about yesterday when I said Obama’s first 50 days was marked by a total lack of leadership.
Here was a chance to lead. After railing on the campaign trail against earmarks and wasteful spending, he signs a bill full of earmarks and wasteful spending and then, like a mom who yells, “boys, quit it” but never moves to enforce her words, Obama says “this should end the old way of doing business”. Really?
What’s the penalty? Another lecture after the signature? Had Obama vetoed the bill, he’d have sent the strong message necessary that his assumption of the presidency marked the end of “business as usual”. Instead he caved and created a fiction that this was the “old administration’s” business and therefore exempt from his pledge.
Talk about BS on a stick. If a president signs something into law his watch, it is his and not anyone else’s. To pretend anyone would actually believe that glib nonsense is incredible. But much of the MSM dutifully reported it as such.
He also pushed the fiction that if this bill wasn’t signed, the government would shut down. No it wouldn’t. Congress simply passes a continuing resolution which funds government at last year’s levels. But that’s not what he or Congress wanted. They wanted the 9,000 earmarks and the 8% increase in spending as well – thus the fiction about it being both necessary and last year’s business.
Then to put the proverbial cherry on the dissembling rhetorical sundae, Obama issues his own signing statement after making a press event about dissing Bush’s use of them.
Political Wire writes that tomorrow might be an interesting day in Congress, corruption-wise. It seems that some things have been going on around Congressman John Murtha (D-PA) which may not be entirely copacetic.
There’s a potentially big story brewing on Capitol Hill… Apparently 104 members of Congress of both parties — 42 Republicans and 62 Democrats — secured earmarks for a lobbying firm linked to Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) in a single bill. The earmarks were inserted in a bill Murtha controlled as the defense appropriations subcommittee chairman.
It looks like business as usual, of course, until we learn that the company’s executives and clients seem to be big, big political donors to Rep. Murtha.
So, I guess it is business as usual.