Jacob Sullum

Critics of the lobbying reform bill recently passed by the Senate say it doesn't adequately address earmarks, those highly specific appropriations legislators slip into spending bills to help special interests. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., spoke for many when he said this kind of spending "has bred lobbyists, which has bred corruption," leading to "all these egregious abuses."

But according to Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Mike Simpson, earmarking is every legislator's constitutional duty. "The framers of the Constitution clearly stated that Congress, not the President or federal bureaucrats, should allocate funding for the various functions of government," the two Idaho Republicans say in an online commentary. "Ending the practice of earmarking would transfer massive funding authority to the President and the federal agencies in defiance of the Constitution."

This defense of pork as not just permitted but mandated by the Constitution gets points for audacity. But Craig and Simpson's fidelity to the Framers' vision is strangely selective, and their argument for earmarking reflects a Capitol Hill mentality that's the strongest reason to oppose the practice.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the number of earmarks, about 14,000 last year, has more than tripled since 1994. Craig and Simpson concede that "not every one of the thousands of Congressional earmarks has been worthy of support" and that some members of Congress have been guilty of "enriching themselves and their families at the expense of taxpayers."

But the two self-described "fiscal conservatives" defend what they call "earnest earmarks" that direct federal dollars to legislators' states and districts. They proudly cite earmarks they obtained that "built new wastewater infrastructure in Bonners Ferry, supported jobs at the Idaho National Laboratory, improved housing for families at Mountain Home Air Force Base, and expanded course offerings at Boise State University."

It's doubtful that legislators who reflexively demand more money for their own states and districts will do a better job of allocating funds for military housing than "some nameless, faceless bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., who has never stepped foot in Idaho," which is how Craig and Simpson describe the guy who would make spending decisions in the absence of earmarks. And remember the Constitution, the one that gives Congress the fiscal powers Craig and Simpson are so keen to defend? Where in that document is Congress empowered to spend taxpayers' money on local wastewater treatment, college courses or nuclear energy research? The relevant provisions are even harder to find than evidence of Craig and Simpson's fiscal conservatism.

Craig and Simpson clearly think defying the Constitution to buy votes with taxpayers' money is better than taking bribes to steer military contracts toward certain companies, the offense for which Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., got an eight-year prison term. I'm not so sure. After all, Cunningham's favoritism did help create jobs in his district, and at least national defense is a legitimate function of the federal government.

In dollar terms, pork for power -- the kind lawmakers publicize because they think it will help them stay in office -- is a much bigger problem than pork for pay. Few members of Congress maintain a Cunningham-style "bribe menu," but almost all of them send out newsletters bragging about the bacon they've brought home.

Craig and Simpson are right about one thing: Abolishing earmarks would not, by itself, have much of an impact on federal spending, even if the money was cut instead of reallocated. Based on the Congressional Research Service's numbers, earmarks account for something like 2 percent of the federal budget.

But as Heritage Foundation budget expert Brian Riedl notes, legislators have been known to support big-ticket items such as the Medicare drug benefit in exchange for the promise of pork. More fundamentally, "earnest earmarks" reinforce the smug belief that there's nothing shameful about treating money forcibly taken from other people as a slush fund to help you win a popularity contest.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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