Great news: Congress discovers exciting new ways to earmark

Maybe I’ve been wrong all along. Maybe it really is time for a third party.

Though Mr. Kirk and other Republicans thundered against pork-barrel spending and lawmakers’ practice of designating money for special projects through earmarks, they have not shied from using a less-well-known process called lettermarking to try to direct money to projects in their home districts…

Lettermarking, which takes place outside the Congressional appropriations process, is one of the many ways that legislators who support a ban on earmarks try to direct money back home.

In phonemarking, a lawmaker calls an agency to request financing for a project. More indirectly, members of Congress make use of what are known as soft earmarks, which involve making suggestions about where money should be directed, instead of explicitly instructing agencies to finance a project. Members also push for increases in financing of certain accounts in a federal agency’s budget and then forcefully request that the agency spend the money on the members’ pet project…

[A] New York Times review of letters and e-mail to government agencies from members of Congress shows that the practice is widespread despite the fact that both President George W. Bush and President Obama have issued executive orders instructing agencies not to finance projects based on communications from Congress.

According to the Times, there’s basically no way to track these requests short of using FOIA to demand correspondence between Congress and various agencies. Another fun fact: Both Obama and Bush issued executive orders instructing agencies not to fund projects based on requests from individual congressmen — and yet, oddly enough, the Times claims the practice is “widespread.” Why do you suppose that is? Why might an agency head, whose budget depends on congressional appropriations, feel compelled to comply with “requests” from individual representatives for a few million dollars of pork here and there?

What’s most depressing about this, I think, isn’t the betrayal of transparency or even the hypocrisy of being loudly anti-earmark yet quietly pro-lettermark, it’s that it’s yet another example of government trying to do an end-around recently imposed limits on its own power. In this case, that limit was self-imposed by the GOP’s pledge to end earmarks; in the case of last night’s post about countermeasures to executive regulations, that limit was imposed on the White House by voters who chose divided government in November. And yet the GOP presses ahead with lettermarks and Obama presses ahead with pursuing his agenda by ignoring Congress to whatever extent he can. Nothing illegal about either, but they’re proof that not even a giant midterm landslide is enough of a signal to convince some pols to change their ways. Some “representation.”

Incidentally, since we’ve been arguing lately about whether the House of Representatives should be expanded, take a minute to read this smart Jay Cost post about how a bigger House could also mean more pork. The more districts we have, the smaller and more parochial they’ll get, which could be a huge benefit to incumbents who are willing and able to deliver lucrative earmarks back home.