Waging War on Earmarks

Ken Blackwell

6/20/2007 12:01:29 AM - Ken Blackwell

Last year, incoming speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, vowed Democrats would “bring transparency and openness to the budget process and to the use of earmarks.”

It seems Congressional Democrats’ professed appreciation for fiscal responsibility has had the life expectancy of a firefly.

Now, Democrats and Republicans are openly battling each other over pork-barrel spending, better known as earmarks. An earmark is where a member of Congress secures federal money for their home district, “bringing home the bacon.”

In the House, these provisions are not debated on the floor. Instead, they are anonymously inserted in committee reports before final passage. The spending is then voted into law without public scrutiny. The current earmark system is a disgrace and an invitation to corruption.

And both parties have an embarrassing history with earmarks. Ronald Reagan vetoed a highway-spending bill because it had over 100 earmarks in it. Two years ago, the highway bill included over 6,000.

The American people have had it with earmarks. Polls show that one of the reasons driving Congress’s near record-low poll numbers is their out of control spending. Both NBC News/Wall Street Journal and Quinnipiac University polls show congressional approval at 23%, seven points lower than that of the president’s. For some committed conservatives especially, this disapproval has intensified to outrage.

This outrage is one of the reasons Republicans lost power. Polls show that a major reason, along with the Iraq war and corruption, for GOP losses in 2006 was wasteful spending.

And frankly, some Republicans deserved to lose power. Political parties are elected to solve problems. You get elected to do a job. When you fail to live up to your principles and your promises, the people will turn elsewhere.

This has nothing to do with legitimate government spending that happens to take place in one particular district. Federal funding is needed for some things, and that’s why Congress has constitutional spending power. But that’s also why all earmarks should be publicly disclosed and debated in Congress, so that necessary spending goes forward but wasteful spending is stopped.

Instead, Congress has abused its spending power egregiously. When someone proposes $223 million dollars to build a bridge in Alaska to connect an island with less than 50 people to the mainland, the infamous bridge to nowhere, voters can be expected to get angry.

The GOP has learned this painful lesson, shown by House Republicans electing John Boehner of West Chester, OH. as their leader. v Mr. Boehner has never asked for an earmark, and bluntly told his constituents that if they want someone to bring home the bacon at the national taxpayers’ expense, they should vote for someone else. His team is working with conservative stalwarts like Mike Pence of Indiana and the Republican Study Committee to end the process of earmarking as we know it.

Feeling the heat last year, Republicans finally passed a reform requiring all earmarks to be identified by their sponsor and open to debate and to a vote on the House floor. While this is a step in the right direction, it proved too little and too late.

Democrats used the GOP’s spending binges as a campaign issue to promise reform and take power in Congress.

Now that Democrats control both chambers, they’ve suddenly lost all interest in stopping pork-barrel spending.

In fact, the new process Democrats recently announced will actually be more secretive and unaccountable than ever. At a recent press conference, Mrs. Pelosi and the chairman of the committee on appropriations, David Obey, declared that they don’t have time to debate earmarks or even insert them into committee reports.

Instead, members must vote for spending bills first, then later this summer they will be given the earmark list and can send written challenges on anything they don’t like to Mr. Obey. He alone will then decide which ones to eliminate from the House-Senate conference bill before the conference bill vote. Those bills are voted up-or-down. They cannot be amended.

In response, Mr. Boehner announced he will mobilize the House GOP for an all out fight on this issue. He promised to use all his tools to stop this new system.

The presidential candidates on one side of the aisle are also addressing this seriously. John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson are all calling for ending secret earmarks.

And, of course, a president has the ultimate solution to the earmark problem: He can veto a spending bill, and tell Congress he’ll only sign it when the wasteful spending is gone. Congress would get the message after a few vetoes. I’m happy to finally see candidates promise to do exactly that.

Wasteful government spending has been a campaign cliché for too long. It’s now time for action, not rhetoric. And it’s time for those promising reform to deliver.

If the Democrats don’t reverse their course, their congressional reign will be short and their nominee will fail. And if the GOP proves it’s serious about fixing our nation’s spending problems, they will be back on track to regaining the voters’ trust.