Alternate headline: The House GOP has a fee-vah and the only prescription is … more pork-barrel politics! Having won the House majority two election cycles in a row, some inside the GOP caucus want to bring back earmarking — with reforms, of course:
Rep. Don Young of Alaska, a longtime supporter of earmarks, will offer an amendment at the House GOP organizational meeting that would change the rules of the House to allow members to bring earmarks with some conditions.
The rules would ban earmarks, “except if the recipient of the earmark is the Federal Government, a State, or a unit of local government, the Member sponsoring such earmark is identified, the earmark is initiated in committee, and the earmark falls within the applicable section 302(a) allocation,” according to a summary of the amendment shared with Roll Call.
“He’s always been a supporter of earmarks,” a Young aide said. “It’s Congress’ job to appropriate money and the congressman doesn’t believe that agencies are on the ground enough and are able to see the communities’ needs.”
Rep. Tim Scott, the GOP member of leadership from the class of 2010, said the amendment stands little chance of passing but that eventually, he could see the definition of earmarks changing.
“We’re probably a Congress or two from being able to re-evaluate it honestly without too much thought being given to us trying to bring back pork barrel spending,” the South Carolinian said.
The argument used by pork-barrel politicians to defend the earmarking process is that it hews closer to the Constitution — and there’s some truth in that. The power of the purse belongs to Congress according to Article I, and earmarkers argue that this should include directed and specific spending mandates for federal agencies, or earmarked funding. Allowing the executive-branch agencies to determine spending within their own budgets represents a weakening of Congressional control over spending, they argue, and the federal agencies have less connection to constituents than their elected Representatives anyway, which makes earmarks a more efficient way of getting money to the right priorities.
None of the above is untrue, but most of it is nothing more than a rationalization. Yes, those who are accountable to voters have a better sense of what’s needed on the ground, but that should prompt Congress to demand better budgeting proposals from the executive-branch agencies they oversee rather than block-grant requests. But efficiency isn’t the big problem here; it’s corruption. And Congress proved over and over again in the last few decades that they can’t be trusted with earmarks, regardless of the claims of “reform.”
The corruption takes place in two ways. First, earmarking power brings personal corruption to elected office by making incumbents almost impossible to replace, even when their corruption and/or general knavery becomes well known. They spend taxpayer money on self-aggrandizing local projects in order to put any challengers at a huge disadvantage; Robert Byrd may only have narrowly missed placing his name on every public building in West Virginia, but only because he ran out of time before his death. Charlie Rangel used federal tax dollars to create a monument to himself at City College of New York. John Murtha built an airport no one uses in Johnstown, among many other pork-barrel projects, in order to make his district so dependent on his legendary earmarking ability that they didn’t dare vote him out of office. By “bringing home the bacon” to their districts and states, incumbents all but guarantee themselves a sinecure for life.
Worse yet, the pork becomes the grease that lubricates Congress to pass big-spending bills. When budgets got large enough to start drawing objections from elected officials, a few applications of Earmark Unction were usually enough to buy their votes. Once a Representative had an earmark or two for his district, where he could cut ribbons on new buildings and stick silver shovels into the ground when new projects began — and get all of the local media attention those events bring — concerns about overspending and fiscal sanity took a back seat to personal ambition.
Congress spent decades showing America that the earmark process isn’t a good idea that got abused by a few bad actors. It’s a road to corruption, irresponsibility, sclerotic and static Congresses, and fiscal disaster. We have enough of that as is without putting earmarks back into play. This is one idea that should die a quick and notable death in the House GOP conference.
Update: Kudos to the House Republicans — this proposal got withdrawn last night, after the Roll Call article appeared:
An Alaskan Republican lawmaker famed for backing the “Bridge to Nowhere” withdrew a proposal Thursday to weaken the House GOP’s earmark ban.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) withdrew an amendment to House GOP rules under pressure from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who had made his opposition to the measure clear. The measure would have allowed an exception to the earmark ban if the recipient of the earmark was a unit of local government.
A source close to the Speaker told The Hill the Young amendment would have created “a gaping loophole” to the earmark ban.
“At the end of the day, he declined to offer it because of the clear opposition in the room,” the source said. “Prior to Young pulling the amendment, the Speaker had let it be known that he opposed the amendment and would ask for its defeat if offered.”
Good for Boehner. But it’s disheartening to see a Tea Party-backed official like Scott saying that they’re only a Congress or two from reimplementing earmarks. Keep vigilant on this issue.