The debate about whether to enact a one-year moratorium on congressional earmarks has provoked some interesting historical and constitutional arguments from the earmark-industrial complex. According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, “The Founding Fathers would be cringing to hear people talking about eliminating earmarks.” Members of the congressional appropriations committees regularly cite Article I of the Constitution as proof of their right to send taxpayer money back home to fund teapot museums, swimming pools, and bridges to nowhere. An examination of the actual writings of the Founding Fathers, however, clearly demonstrates that our country’s Founders would have abhorred, not supported, the secretive practice of parochial earmarking.
Even though he firmly believed that the power of appropriating federal money belonged only to Congress and that it was necessary to have a clear delineation of authority between the executive and legislative branches of government, Thomas Jefferson also fervently argued against the use of federal funding for local projects. For example, in a 1796 letter to James Madison regarding federally funded local projects, Jefferson wrote, “[O]ther revenues will soon be called into their aid, and it will be the source of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get the most who are the meanest.” Anyone who has observed the recent tantrums of those who have had their pork challenged knows that Jefferson’s statement was sadly prophetic.
Jefferson was not alone in his worry about the corrupting influence of money and political power. In a 1792 letter to Alexander Hamilton conveying what he believed to be the public’s perceptions of government, George Washington cited worries about the “increase in the mass of the debt,” which had “furnished effectual means of corrupting such a portion of the legislature, as turns the balance between the honest voters[.]” Hamilton, who famously clashed with Jefferson and Madison on fiscal matters, responded that “[e]very session the question whether the annual [funding] provision should be continued, would be an occasion of pernicious caballing and corrupt bargaining.”
The importance of transparency in government operations was also recognized by Jefferson. In 1808 he wrote, “The same prudence, which, in private life, would forbid our paying our money for unexplained projects, forbids it in the disposition of public moneys.” And yet, in the United States Senate, senators are freely able to distribute earmarks to organizations from which they solicit campaign contributions without ever having to actually disclose the names of those organizations. Try as they might, it is difficult for earmark enthusiasts to argue that the author of the Declaration of Independence would today endorse the allocation of taxpayer money on “unexplained projects.”
Jefferson also astutely recognized that large amounts of spending would inevitably lead to outside efforts to redirect that money. He wrote in 1801 about the need “to reform the waste of public money, and thus drive away the vultures who prey upon it[.]” The recent lobbying and earmark scandals have proven that Jefferson’s worries were justified. As federal spending has skyrocketed, so has earmarking. And as earmarking has exploded, so has the earmark lobbying industry that seeks to redirect funding toward its clients and away from American taxpayers. Convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff called the congressional appropriations committee an “earmark favor factory” precisely because he knew that he could influence the allocation of taxpayer dollars via his allocation of congressional campaign contributions.
Although our Founding Fathers disagreed on many matters large and small, they were united in their skepticism of a secretive, backroom process to allocate taxpayer funding. George Washington noted in 1792 that no mischief is “so afflicting and fatal to every honest hope, as the corruption of the legislature.” Congressional approval ratings are now at record lows because taxpayers do not believe that we are being honest or open about how we spend their money.
Instead of offering dubious defenses of the propriety of earmarking, congressional leaders should seek to restore the confidence of the American public in their ability to govern by reacquainting themselves with the very document upon which our system is based. According to the Senate’s own website, the first bill ever passed by the United States Senate created a simple 14-word oath of office for all federal lawmakers and civil servants: “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States.” Conspicuously absent from that oath is any mention of the so-called duty of members of Congress to send taxpayer-funded projects to their hometowns.
The revisionist history justifying today’s earmark favor factory is hardly the fault of the Senate Majority Leader or even his party. Sadly, this idea has currency in the party of limited government in which members should know that the effective legislator is not one who sends money back to his or her state through pork, but the one who prevents money from leaving their state in the first place.
Congress operated for 200 years prior to the creation of the modern earmark favor factory and American taxpayers will do just fine once it’s gone.
– Dr. Tom Coburn (R.) is a United States senator from Oklahoma.