The Democrats, Earmarks, and the Transparency Dodge

The arguments for continuing the irresponsible and frequently corrupt earmark process are misguided at best, and dishonest at worst. Mostly they are dishonest, Senators and House members graft appropriations in the millions for local projects that are never weighed, prioritized or evaluated in the voting process, killing budget restraint by a thousand cuts. They are also used as legislative currency, as two elected officials trade one irresponsible expenditure for a dubious state project for another.

Earmarks are an invitation to corruption, as they often are the result of thinly veiled quid pro quo arrangements. The device makes the American taxpayer the underwriter of expenditures that often have no greater purpose than to grease the skid for re-election for one more fiscally irresponsible politician. For decades, U.S. Presidents have complained about them; most since Ronald Reagan argued for the Constitutionally problematic line-item veto to combat them. Now, spurred by the recent voter revolt over out-of-control spending, the Republican Caucus in the Senate has voted to ban earmarks. The full Senate, however, with eight Republicans joining with the earmark-happy Democrats, voted down a proposed moratorium.

No, earmark-cutting won’t cure the deficit;  yes, earmarks are an example of politics taking precedence over responsible governing. Every ethical Senator and House member should support the ban, and any who does not should be marked as ripe for removal. A prime example is Majority Whip and Appropriations Committee member Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who said, fatuously, “I believe I have an important responsibility to the state of Illinois and the people I represent to direct federal dollars into projects critically important for our state and our future.”  Sure, Senator—all those appropriations for things like a $4.6 million bridge for horses and the earmarks for Mariachi classes and “wine studies” tacked on to education bills are more vital than taking steps to ensure that the U.S. avoids the fates of Greece and Ireland.

Then Durbin cited a popular ethics dodge these days: transparency. “We have put in place the most dramatic reform of this appropriations process since I’ve served in Congress,” he said. “There is full disclosure in my office of every single request for an appropriation. We then ask those who have made the requests to have a full disclaimer of their involvement in the appropriation, so it’s there for the public record. This kind of transparency is virtually unprecedented.”

It may be unprecedented, but it hardly addresses the ethical problem. Because the financial horsetrading on the Hill has been both irresponsible and secret for os long, now Senators like Durbin are arguing that transparency and disclosure cures the other ethical problems with earmarks. Obviously, it does not. Wasting taxpayer money is still waste, whether it is disclose or not. Irresponsible expenditures without Congressional review is wrong, no matter who knows about it. Trading boondoggles for campaign contributions is still corrupt, and all the transparency in the world doesn’t make it less so.

Count on career politicians to take a measure designed to encourage ethical conduct—which is what transparency helps to do—and use it to justify continuing unethical conduct.

3 thoughts on “The Democrats, Earmarks, and the Transparency Dodge

  1. As far as I’m concerned, each earmark constitutes the equivalent of a Federal contribution to a Congressional incumbent’s re-election campaign. The states already get bloc grants from the Feds: make earmarks illegal and let all the “important” but unaffordable state needs be paid for through competitive federal grants programs — of which there are already thousands.

    Many have said that earmarks are a “negligible” percentage of the Federal budget. How about that percentage over the past 10 years? The past 20? I’d like to know.

    Besides, it’s not their money to spend. As far as I’m concerned, the best result from a ban on earmarks might just be the comeuppance of our elected officials… They won’t be able to buy re-election votes through Federal appropriations, they won’t be able to excuse moronic votes because they contained significant help for their jurisdictions, and, one can hope, they will have to leave just a small part of their incredible privilege behind and serve the people and the nation for a change: that is, stop treating money as just numbers unattached to any reality, but real dollars from real people for which they swear to provide some responsible stewardship.

    And speaking of serving the people: when did the average (really!) salary of a Federal employee reach $100,000? Well it’s gotten there, and I never knew about it. Need to see Marshall address this in ethics terms, if possible. A conflict of interest, iisn’t it? Bureaucrats funding bureaucrats.
    It would be good to know how comparative jobs in the private sector stack up. There must be a story there, whether it’s Marshall’s or not.

  2. The story from earmark proponents is that earmarks constitute “only” seven billion dollars per year of the federal budget. Well… maybe THIS year it does, but federal dollars into such things as the “Big Dig” boondoggle in Boston, the “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska and West Virginia’s “highway to nowhere” (the brainchild of the late Earmark King, Robert Byrd) have added up to real money. The innumerable other grants and perks over the years (some of them not only far beneath constitutional purview, but rididulous as well) have added to the immense bill. Earmarks are nothing more than political devices for congressmen seeking re-election with taxpayer money on the sly. For those interested in the ethics of this, I’d refer them to Davy Crockett’s famous account of this meeting with backwoods philosopher Horace Bunch.

    It occurs to me that what Congress needs to do is pass a “Truth in Advertising” equivalent to their own legislative practices. A bill entitled, say, Army Ammunition Appropriation, should include only provisions relevant to its heading. There should not be a sneak paragraph in the middle that grants funds to building an unneeded airport in Johnstown PA to be named after its incumbent congressman… or the like. And, I might add, I believe strongly in the concept that every bill should include in its summary what provision of the Constitution justifies it. We could cut down on a lot of frivolous and politically corrupt spending, both immediately and over time, by enacting this simple guideline to Congress’ business. Crockett and Bunch would approve heartily!

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