I suspect everyone has heard of Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere”. This wonderful piece of pork barrel spending planned $300 million to build a bridge as long as the Golden Gate Bridge and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge to connect a town of 7,400 people in southern Alaska to it’s airport across the bay. More specifically, it was an earmark.
What is an Earmark?
A wordy definition given by the Congressional Research Service is on p.5 of this pdf. An earmark is a small part of a bill inserted by a legislator to direct funds to a specific project or organization, typically within his or her own district. In this case, Congress approved a sum of money for transportation in Alaska, but Sen. Ted Stevens inserted an earmark to dedicate a big chunk towards his bridge. Wisely, Sen. Coburn of Oklahoma successfully fought to remove the earmark.
Sen. Stevens’ defense, made by many, is that he knows his state better than bureaucrats in Washington. Even though the bureaucrats do not live in Alaska, it is hard to believe that any one person could be smart enough to know the best use of funds in a state that covers 500,000 sq. miles. The places and people he knows would certainly get more attention.
If this were the only problem with earmarks, it would not be worth talking about. The real problems are much bigger. Instead of coming up with solutions for big issues, they are sitting in presentations by hat-in-hand organizations listening to pleas for government handouts.
Earmarks also increase total spending. It may be true that a Rep is simply sending a portion of his or her district’s funds to a certain project or organization, but having that earmark gives them a stake in seeing the bill pass. If a Congressman is worried about getting re-elected and can save his neck by building a nice museum in his district by use of an earmark, the temptation is to vote for the entire spending bill regardless of how bloated it gets.
In 1994, Republicans swept to power promising fiscal discipline because the spending habits of Democrats were out of hand. The Republicans held strong for a few years, but soon succumbed to the money game and the number of earmarks and pork barrel projects skyrocketed. In 2006, the Democrats swept to power promising fiscal discipline and earmark reform. They then proceeded to vote down the earmark reforms and started busting the budget with pork-filled bills.
In a letter to House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi concerning earmarks, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick is quoted in an article by politico.com.
“There are a few examples of where your help could significantly assist a few members in highly contested races,” she wrote.
Apparently, this Congresswoman is requesting that the party leadership should use public money to help secure the re-election of party members by use of earmarks. This is unbelievable! Let me make it clear: She wants to take YOUR money and give it to lobbyists to help keep her party in power!
In response to this letter Rep. Campbell of California said, “This letter appears to request taxpayer dollars to aid in political campaigns, which is improper and possibly illegal.”
Note: I don’t like to make a big issue out of offhanded quotes, but her quote was in a prepared letter with her signature. This was not a misstatement and was not taken out of context.
Most importantly, there is the very real problem of lobbyists making a campaign donation and the Congressman magically seeing the light and deciding that yes, the road leading to said lobbyist’ proposed development should be expanded. In other words, corruption.
A few years ago, Congress passed the McCain-Feingold bill to limit donations and lobbyist influence. It does not seem to have worked, as there has been no mass exodus by lobbyists out of DC. This year, Congress slipped thousands of earmarks into bills to help special interest groups. The problem with the McCain-Feingold bill is that it was an attempt to reduce demand for government handouts. If you can cure the demand for free money, I’ll nominate you for a Nobel Prize. It is not the demand for free money that can be controlled, it is the supply.
We need to ban earmarks, plain and simple. If a Congressman cannot give funds to a particular project or organization, the lobbyists will stop asking for money. If there is no supply of free money, there is no demand for free money.
This is also one of the reasons I support the flat tax. If there is no supply of tax breaks and loopholes, there will be no demand for tax breaks and loopholes.
To end corruption and the appearance of corruption, we have to cut off the supply of free money handouts. We must ban earmarks.
Right now, an organization called FreedomWorks has a website set up to send an e-mail to the President letting him know you want him to override the earmarks. It was quick and easy. I sent one and I hope you do too. Check it out here.
As always, let me know what you think.