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Deaf on earmarks

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In the grand scheme of things — among all the wasteful, foolish, corrupting things engaged in by members of Congress — earmarks are one small item.

We read about the latest insider deals in the morning paper, but earmarks certainly don’t capture the intense media attention that congressional groping and tickling do.

Nor do earmarks account for much of the gross spending, relatively. In the last fiscal year budget, out of roughly a trillion dollars in discretionary federal spending, only $16 billion was blown via thousands of earmarks.

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So, why all the fuss?

It’s not merely that a little corruption, unchecked, tends to lead to bigger corruption. It is also that a little corruption is still, well . . . corruption. And corruption of any size, shape or partisan color is wrong.

Allowing individual congressmen to personally bestow chunks of federal money to various for-profit businesses or non-profit groups can only corrupt. In more ways than one.

The earmark culture is corrosive in the usual way one might think. Take, for example, the recent case of those seven Congressmen — cleared by the House ethics committee of any “direct or indirect” wrongdoing — who delivered $245 million of our tax dollars to clients of PMA Group — now out of business after the beginning of an ongoing FBI investigation — and the congressmen received $840,000 back in campaign contributions from those same PMA clients. (In a brown paper bag? Nope. Not necessary.)

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye remains unashamed, offering that, “The truth of the matter is that many, if not most, for-profit and nonprofit entities lobby for themselves or employ lobbyists. That is how most of them make the Congress aware of their products and services. It is no secret that these meetings take place. In addition, it is no secret that many of these individuals make political contributions.”

It almost goes without saying that Mr. Inouye, after 50 years in Washington, clearly has no clue what “many, if not most” businesses and non-profits do. He only sees the ones clamoring after him, hoping for a few scraps from the crown.

On the other hand, Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems to understand that earmarks are unethical. This past week, she and the House Democratic leadership announced a ban on earmarks to for-profit companies. “[The ban] ensures that for-profit companies no longer reap the rewards of congressional earmarks and limits the influence of lobbyists on members of Congress,” she told reporters.

Very nice. But a few questions still linger. Did she just now discover this problem? Or did she just discover a pollster who discovered it was a political problem?

And what a problem it is. Incumbents possess a slew of special benefits and other advantages in seeking re-election over challengers, but their biggest advantage by far — in raising campaign money and influencing powerful interests that can help turn out votes — is the ability to steer massive federal funding. Earmarks allow incumbents to actually claim full credit with beneficiaries for huge hunks of the taxpayers’ largesse.

Little surprise, then, to learn that the Democratic leadership faces, according to a Washington Post report, “fierce resistance from many rank-and-file lawmakers who rely on [earmarks] to spread federal money around their districts and consider them crucial to their political fortunes.”

Republicans, being out of power and sniffing a Unique Selling Proposition in the making, responded with a pledge to foreswear all earmarks for the remainder of this term — that is, earmarking money to neither for-profit nor non-profit entities.

After the GOP caucus made its decision, House Minority Leader John Boehner asked whether his party was “really willing to put it all on the line to win this thing?"

In trying to decipher Mr. Boehner, I’m convinced that by “put it all on the line” he doesn’t mean “risk their lives,” but rather “risk losing political advantage from the earmark slush fund.” By “win this thing,” he means “win the next election.”

Even Senator John McCain, who has been considered a fierce opponent of earmarks, misses the bigger point when he suggests “a complete ban on earmarks until our budget is balanced."

Putting off corrupt practices until we’re better able to afford them hardly seems like the best policy.

Perhaps the worst thing about earmarks is that they corrode the idea of a separation of powers, and accordingly a check and balance in the system. Congress has the power of the purse. That’s an awesome power. Congress also makes all the laws, sets all the policies. That ain’t chopped liver.

With that power comes some level of responsibility. And some level of humility and cooperation in understanding limits.

It is important that the same men and women who decide policy and appropriate the funding to carry out that policy (the legislative branch) not also have their hands into the minutia of awarding contracts and making hiring and spending decision for the execution of that policy (the executive branch). That’s why we separate the branches of government.

Do we want Congress to be earmarking the Pentagon budget? They do! Do we want these solons earmarking various General Motors expenditures? Oops! Forget I wrote that.

Like a drunk with a bottle, or an addict with a needle, the answer is clear: A complete turnaround is necessary. But with drunks and addicts, their chief victims are themselves. They have personal reasons to change. With Congress and earmarks, the chief victim is us.

Many in Congress are still in the denial phase of resistance to change; the rest are negotiating. With us, with their putative masters. Only if we consistently demand an end to this form of corruption will they come clean. Otherwise, the whole lot of them will lapse back into their addiction to earmarks.

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