Despite “the most sweeping ethics reform since Watergate” and promises from the new House leadership to cut the number of earmarks in half, it appears the House is on its way again to absurd levels of pork-barrel spending. Roll Call reports that member earmark requests to the House Appropriations Committee website clogged with so many requests that the committee extended its request deadline until 11:59 p.m. on March 24.
While conservative leaders such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) have recently been joined in the anti-earmark fight by hard-core liberals like Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), both parties are still burdened by leadership invested in the pork process. National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) epitomizes the establishment attitude on earmarks, telling the Washington Post last year: “Oh, I don’t think the problem was spending. People who argue that we lost because we weren’t true to our base, that’s just wrong.”
Whether or not polling shows the American people care about out-of-control pork-barrel spending, they should. Earmarks are terrible for the U.S. because:
- They Invite Corruption: Congress does have a proper role in determining the rules, eligibility and benefit criteria for federal grant programs. However, allowing lawmakers to select exactly who receives government grants invites corruption. Instead of entering a competitive application process within a federal agency, grant-seekers now often have to hire a lobbyist to win the earmark auction. Encouraged by lobbyists who saw a growth industry in the making, local governments have become hooked on the earmark process for funding improvement projects.
- They Encourage Spending: While there may not be a causal relationship between the two, the number of earmarks approved each year tracks closely with growth in federal spending. DeMint explains why this relationship may be more than a coincidence: “I talked to colleagues who would say, ‘DeMint, I gotta vote for this bill because it has my project in it,’ even though the bill was way over budget.”
- They Distort Priorities: Many earmarks do not add new spending by themselves, but instead redirect funds already slated to be spent through competitive grant programs or by states into specific projects favored by an individual member. So, for example, if a member of the Nevada delegation succeeded in getting a $2 million earmark to build a bicycle trail in Elko in 2005, then that $2 million would be taken out of the $254 million allocated to the Nevada Department of Transportation (DOT) for that year. So if Nevada had wanted to spend that money fixing a highway in rapidly expanding Las Vegas, thanks to the earmark, they would now be out of luck.
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