Tad DeHaven

A Washington Post investigation identified dozens of examples of federal policymakers directing federal dollars to projects that benefited their property or an immediate family member. Members of Congress have been enriching themselves at taxpayer expense? In other news, the sun rose this morning.

According to the Post, “Under the ethics rules Congress has written for itself, this is both legal and undisclosed”:

By design, ethics rules governing Congress are intended to preserve the freedom of members to direct federal spending in their districts, a process known as earmarking. Such spending has long been cloaked in secrecy and only in recent years has been subjected to more transparency. Although Congress has imposed numerous conflict-of-interest rules on federal agencies and private businesses, the rules it has set for itself are far more permissive.

Lawmakers are required to certify that they do not have a financial stake in the actions they take. In the cases The Post examined, not one lawmaker mentioned that he or she owned property that was near the earmarked project or had a relative who was employed by the company or institution that received the earmark. The reason: Nothing in congressional rules requires them to do so, and the rules do not address proximity.

With the fox guarding the henhouse, the most one can hope to accomplish is to limit the carnage. Many pundits, politicians, and policy wonks argue that a permanent ban on earmarks would be an effective limit. Unfortunately, that’s just wishful thinking as earmarks are merely a symptom of the real problem: Congress can spend other peoples’ money on virtually anything it wants.

Take the example of Rep. Candace Miller (R-MI):

In Harrison Township, Mich., Rep. Candice S. Miller’s home is on the banks of the Clinton River, about 900 feet downstream of the Bridgeview Bridge. The Republican lawmaker said when she learned local officials were going to replace the aging bridge, she decided to make sure the new one had a bike lane.

“I told the road commission, ‘I am going to try to get an earmark for the bike path,’” Miller said, recalling that she said, “If we don’t put a bike path on there while you guys are reconstructing the bridge, it will never happen.”

A member of the House Transportation Committee, Miller in 2006 was able to secure a $486,000 earmark that helped add a 14-foot-wide bike lane to the new bridge. That lane is a critical link in the many miles of bike paths that Miller has championed over the years. When the bridge had its grand reopening in 2009, Miller walked over from her home.

“People earmark for all kinds of things,” she said. “I’m pretty proud of this; I think I did what my people wanted. Should I have told them, ‘We can never have this bike path complete because I happen to live by one section of it’? They would have thrown me out of office.”

Forget how the federal money made it to Harrison Township, Michigan. As I’ve discussed before, the more important concern is that the federal government is funding countless activities that are not properly its domain:

There just isn’t much difference between the activities funded via earmarking and the activities funded by standard bureaucratic processes. The means are different, but the ends are typically the same: federal taxpayers paying for parochial benefits that are properly the domain of state and local governments, or preferably, the private sector. As a federal taxpayer, I’m no better off if the U.S. Dept. of Transportation decides to fund a bridge in Alaska or if Alaska’s congressional delegation instructs the DOT to fund the bridge.

As a taxpayer, it disgusts me that Rep. Miller steered federal dollars to a project in her district that she personally benefited from. But would I be any better off had the money for a bike path in Harrison Township, Michigan come from a grant awarded by the Department of Transportation?

If Harrison Township wanted a bike path, then it should have been paid for with taxes collected by the appropriate unit of local government. Better yet, a private group could have raised the funds. Either way, I don’t see how it’s possible to argue that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority to spend taxpayer money on such activities. Invoking the General Welfare Clause doesn’t pass the laugh test as the bike path obviously doesn’t benefit the rest of the country. The Commerce Clause? Please.

For more on why the federal government should stop subsidizing activities that are properly the domain of the state and local government, see this Cato essay on fiscal federalism.


Tad DeHaven

Tad DeHaven is a budget analyst at the Cato Institute. Previously he was a deputy director of the Indiana Office of Management and Budget. DeHaven also worked as a budget policy advisor to Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Tom Coburn (R-OK).