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.