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.
And what's at least as important as the spending is the corruption that earmarks breed. Earmarks make giving handouts to political allies easy. Want to reward a campaign donor, or an old buddy from local politics? Earmarks give politicians a way to spend taxpayer money on political rewards.
And because most earmarks are buried in lengthy, complicated appropriations report language that's read by few people, it's tough for many ordinary people to find out how their tax dollars are being spent. When it comes to money, Congress is nothing if not sneaky.
But recent levels of public scrutiny, combined with a handful of legislators who've courageously refused to take part in the culture of Congressional waste, has turned the tied against Washington's spending sneaks. Sens. Jim DeMint and John Shadegg, Rep. Jeff Flake, and current Republican presidential nominee John McCain have all drawn a clear line in the fight against earmarks.
Along with the leadership provided by these legislators, outside pressure has contributed as well. In particular, FreedomWorks, an activist organization of which I am Chairman, has pushed legislators to sign a simple, straightforward pledge that they will refuse to engage in any earmarking whatsoever during the next fiscal year. The pledge can be found online at EarmarkPledge.com. Already, 10 current legislators and five candidates for office have promised to put a stop to this egregious practice.
Indeed, the idea is so powerful and popular that it crosses party lines. Even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—both of whom have indulged in hundreds of millions worth of taxpayer-funded pork—have decided to endorse a ban on the practice for the coming year.
Substantial opposition remains from Democratic leadership in Congress and, more troublesomely, from several Republicans whose seats on the appropriations committee give them the most direct access to pork-barrel funds. A bill proposed by Sen. DeMint to halt earmarking was voted down recently, but individual legislators can still take a stand on the issue by promising to abstain from the practice regardless of what other legislators are doing.
Curing Washington's addiction to spending will not be easy. Everyone concerned about the government's abuse of taxpayer funds should let their Congressman know that this practice must end now.
A steady diet of pork has made the big-spenders in Congress fiscally fat and lazy. It's time to trim down Congressional spending and stop the culture of waste and favor-trading that it breeds.