If you don’t recall ordering a state-of-the-art office building in a cow pasture, you’re not alone. Nobody does. But that’s how the congressional process known as “earmarking” works.
Several weeks ago I did a “BreakPoint” commentary calling attention to the scandal of earmarking funds. Many listeners wrote in to inquire what earmarking was. Well, simply put, it is expenditures slipped into the budget by powerful congressmen that bypass the budgeting process and are authorized without debate.
While congressmen defend these expenditures with high-sounding rhetoric, their real purpose is to help themselves get re-elected. When you hear people talk about a politician “bringing home the bacon” to his district, chances are he is talking about earmarking. New roads and “glistening glass-and-steel” office buildings are campaign ads in concrete.
It does not matter if they are necessary or even wanted, which brings me back to that pasture. It was intended to house something called the “Institute for Scientific Research.” You may be thinking, “That is what universities are for.” And again, you’re not alone.
The earmarked funds for the “Institute” have raised serious questions. Its sponsor, Congressman Alan Mollohan, faces an investigation into charges of corruption. He’s alleged to have funneled $250 million to “into five nonprofit organizations that he set up.” It’s also alleged that he has enriched himself in the process.
While any wrongdoing on Mollohan’s part remains to be proven, we can pass judgment now on the system: It’s rotten; it needs to go. And the House is debating reforming it at this very moment.
Mollohan’s potential legal difficulties stem from allegations of greed. But if he had just stuck to wasting unconscionable sums of taxpayer money to stay in office, like many of his colleagues, he would have been okay—a hero, in fact. That’s the real scandal here.
As Congress debates “ethics reform,” people should press them to end the earmarking process. The status quo simply can’t continue. According to the Congressional Research Service, the amount spent on earmarks has doubled in the last six years.
Besides the waste, there’s the moral question: The job of government, the Bible tells us, is to preserve order and do justice. It’s difficult to see how earmarking accomplishes either. Whether or not a public project contributes to the common good should be debated publicly, not slipped into a piece of legislation behind closed doors.
Of course, that assumes that notions of the common good have any meaning in an era of individual self-gratification. They’d better have, because our noble experiment in limited government and ordered liberty depends on the idea of the “commonweal,” which is a Christian concept. Without this, all government comes to resemble that pasture in Fairmont: an empty, expensive, monument to human pride and greed.
Jodi Rudoren, “Congressman’s Special Projects Bring Complaints,” New York Times, 8 April 2006.
“Mollohan Story: A Game-Changer?” The Hotline, 7 April 2006.
John R. Wilke, “Lawmaker Bought Farm with CEO Who Gained from Appropriations,” Wall Street Journal, 25 April 2006, A1.
“No Quid Pro Quo in Land Deal, Says W. Va. Democrat,” Washington Post, 7 April 2006, A06.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 060327, “Ethics? Who Needs Ethics?: Why We Need the Line-Item Veto.”