The Evil of Earmarks and Some Congressional Courage

Posted: Apr 20, 2006 6:17 PM

A few weeks ago the House of Representatives voted on a bill urging Americans to support the goals of “Financial Literacy Month” because “personal financial literacy is essential to ensure that individuals are prepared to manage money, credit, and debt, and become responsible workers, heads of households, investors.”

The bill, sponsored by Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL), drew over ninety cosponsors and was approved 423 to 1. Who could possibly disagree with the concept that Americans would benefit from learning more about responsibly managing their finances?

Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) voted no; his reason was scathing. “Congress,” said Flake, “is in no position to teach Americans how to manage their finances.” Flake means what he says. Congress should learn to become financially literate before it starts advising the American people how to balance their own checkbooks. He is offering more than mere talk; he is leading a crusade in the House to eliminate Congressional earmarks. Earmarks are the product of a process which the Congressional Research Service defines as “funds set aside within an account for individual projects, locations, or institutions.”

Earmarks are more indicative of the clout of the legislator than a compelling need on the part of the Federal Government to finance projects that often are contrary to its Constitutional obligations. Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) identified the top two recipients of pork in Fiscal Year 2006 to be Alaska ($489 per capita/$325 million) and Hawaii ($378 per capita/$482 million). Alaska’s Senator Ted Stevens (R) is Ranking Majority Member and former Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Hawaii’s Senator Daniel K. Inoyue ranks second in Democratic Senatorial seniority. All totaled 9,963 projects were stuffed into eleven appropriations bills, adding to $29 billion. Earmarks are modest by the standards of the Federal Budget but they do add to huge numbers.

Consider some of the earmarks which have received attention in recent months in news releases issued by Flake’s office:

    $597,000 for the Montana Sheep Institute (Agriculture Appropriations Bill for FY 2006)

    $25,000 to Mifflintown, Pennsylvania for developing a playground facility. (Transportation-Treasury-HUD Appropriations Bill for FY 2006)

    $1,350,000 to pasteurize shell eggs in Michigan. (Agriculture Appropriations bill for FY 2006)

    $500,000 for expanding the Atlanta Symphony Center. (Transportation-Treasury-HUD Appropriations Bill for FY 2006)

    $229,000 for dairy education in Iowa. (Agriculture Appropriations Bill for FY 2006)

    $250,000 to Sparta, North Carolina for constructing the Sparta Teapot Museum. (Agriculture Appropriations Bill for FY 2006)

Fortunately, Flake and Senators John S. McCain (R-AZ) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) want Congress to declare enough is enough. Flake is sponsor of H.R. 4964 – the Earmark Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006 – and McCain is sponsoring and Coburn co-sponsoring S. 2265 – the Pork-Barrel Reduction Act. Flake’s bill has 19 co-sponsors and McCain’s has nine. S. 2265’s objective is encapsulated as: “A bill to provide greater accountability of taxpayers' dollars by curtailing congressional earmarking, and for other purposes.”

Each bill has prominent Democrats on board. Representatives Mark Udall (D-CO) and Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) are co-sponsors of Flake’s bill. Senators Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Russell Feingold (D-WI) are co-sponsors of McCain’s bill.

Coburn (who is a physician) calls earmarks “a gateway drug on the road to the spending addiction,” arguing that reducing earmarks is more than just a dollars-and-cents issue. It is an essential step to helping restore trust in a Congress besmirched by scandal. Earmark reform would help to fracture the tight relationship between Members of Congress, lobbyists and campaign donors. Coburn views Congress the way Edmund Burke defined his role as a Member of Parliament in his 1774 Speech to the Electors of Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Coburn maintains the best legacy a Senator or Representative can leave his constituents are sound economic conditions. Spending millions of dollars adds to billions and deficits become debt upon which interest must be paid by future generations. The Federal Debt limit is well over $8 trillion. Is it surprising that Coburn recently told WORLD Magazine: “If you’re backing projects that benefit you politically back home you’re not being a good steward of public money.” We have too many politicians in Congress who have good judgment for the politics of the moment and a lack of courage and conviction when it comes to doing what’s best for the long-term interest of our country and our future generations.

Congress owes it to the American people to tackle earmarks and to do so in a meaningful and responsible manner.

It was hoped that the Senate in passing legislation to reform Congress would include meaningful earmark reform which would allow single earmarks to be removed surgically (rather than require opposing the whole bill). As it turned out, the Senate bill would require “nonfederal earmarks” to be announced at least one day before a bill is voted on by the entire Senate. If earmarks are added during conference committees and not voted on by either chamber they would be removed unless sixty senators vote for to preserve them. However, the “Nonfederal” designation means the restrictions apply only to earmarks aimed at State or local governments or Indian tribes, not to earmarks for Federal agencies.

THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS in an April 2nd editorial noted that the amendment by Coburn and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) to open up earmarks to true public scrutiny was thwarted by Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), who claimed it lacked relevancy to ethics legislation.

The NEWS noted that it was lobbyist Jack Abramoff who labeled the House Appropriations Committee the “earmark favor factory” and that Flake links earmarks with “corruption” because earmarks are used as sweeteners to obtain support for appropriations bills. Reformers argue that the Senate bill ended up providing the appearance of reform to the earmark process while leaving intact the status quo.

Coburn was one of eight senators to oppose the legislation in part because it did not include meaningful earmark reform. After the vote, Coburn said, “Congress could have crafted serious reform legislation. Unfortunately, the Senate put public relations ahead of real reform and chose to wash the outside of the cup while leaving the inside filthy. The problem in Washington is not lobbyists; the problem is Congress.” He hinted quite strongly that he would have much more to say about specific earmarks that Senators will stuff into Appropriations bills. He chairs the Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security, and its webpage has just posted a “toolkit” on earmarks.

The House soon will consider ethics reform but it remains to be seen if Members will have the courage to crack down on earmarks. (The House should avoid another “reform” that is troubling from the standpoint of the First Amendment - the so-called “grassroots lobbying” provision that will saddle activists, their groups and contractors with registration and reporting requirements.)

Senator Coburn and Representative Flake deserve credit from conservatives - from everyone who is fiscally responsible - for their willingness to court unpopularity with their colleagues by challenging earmarks. For too long, this practice of stuffing spending into appropriations bills based upon a legislator’s political needs has taken precedence over the national interest. The mounting Federal Debt tells us that it’s time to reverse priorities. Congress has been spending like there’s no tomorrow for years and – guess what – tomorrow is arriving very soon.