There are three groups of people who regularly spend other people's money: children, thieves, and politicians. All three of these groups need supervision—a watchful, responsible eye who keeps them in line. For children, that means parents. For thieves, that means police and the courts. For politicians, that means America's many concerned voters.
Supervision is easiest for the first two groups. Children living under the same roof are tough for parents to ignore. Courts and the police are paid to be vigilant regarding the actions of thieves.
Voters, however, have plenty to do in their own lives. Managing homes, jobs, and families takes enough time without having to pay attention to the inner-workings of Washington. In my time as House Majority Leader, I learned that politicians rely on this fact in order to persist in their wasteful ways. Instead of looking for ways to serve their constituents, many in Washington hope the electorate will be too busy to pay attention so that they can continue with their three favorite activities: spending, spending, and more spending.
Nowhere is this clearer than with Congressional earmarks, perhaps the most visible symbol of Congressional waste today. Earmarks are inserts and attachments to spending bills used by politicians to direct money toward pet projects. Thus, instead of federal agencies spending their allotted money on the projects they deem most critical to their goals, they're instructed to spend the money on what are often political priorities intended to benefit narrow special interests.
The most famous example is the Bridge to Nowhere, a $220 million project proposed in 2005 that would've served a mere 50 people living on a remote island. But despite the public protests, the waste hasn't stopped. This year's spending bill included, among other things, $1 million for the so-called “Center for Instrumented Critical Infrastructure” in Pennsylvania. When asked to justify the funding, Rep. John Murtha couldn’t even demonstrate the center exists. Another earmark tagged $2 million toward a college center named after my friend and former colleague Rep. Charlie Rangel—proposed by none other than, you guessed it, Charlie Rangel.
Some say that earmarks are merely a distraction, the total value of which is so small it hardly matters. But $15 billion, the value of Congressional earmarks this year, is hardly peanuts. In fact, it's more than the individual gross domestic product—the entire economic output—of 94 of the world's countries.
Even a passing glance at this year's earmark haul shows just how out of control spending in Washington has become. Congress is called to effectively steward taxpayer money. Instead, they're wasting it.