Politics & Policy

Porky’s Revenge

Congressional pork is back, without apology.

Last January, Democrats took the reins in Congress, portraying themselves as agents of change who would restore trust by ending pork-barrel politics in Washington. But now after three months of Democratic rule, it’s clear Democrats are exactly who we thought they were all along — the same old party of tax-and-spend government. And congressional pork is back, with a vengeance.

The Democrats’ failure on pork is a genuine disappointment for anyone who believes, as I do, that reforming the earmark process is essential to bringing real change to the way Congress spends taxpayers’ money.

When I first ran for Congress, I told my constituents that if they wanted a representative who would go to Washington to raid the federal Treasury on their behalf, they shouldn’t vote for me. I’ve stuck to that position ever since.

But changing the culture of Congress is a difficult thing. Earmarks have long been the currency of pork-barrel politics, under Congresses Democratic and Republican alike. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on earmarks in recent decades, sometimes orchestrated by lobbyists, often without public debate.

Member earmarks got out of control in recent decades. Both parties are guilty of focusing too heavily on winning projects instead of winning minds. Indeed, my own party’s overreliance on earmarks contributed to the loss of our majority last November. Still, the wheels have fallen off the Democrats’ “pork reform” movement with astonishing speed.

The collapse started in February, when House Democrats passed a massive spending bill for fiscal year 2007 — a bill they touted as “earmark-free,” which was later confirmed to contain hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for earmarks.

Weeks later, Democrats passed a war-spending bill loaded with billions of dollars in pork projects, with Democratic leaders reportedly threatening to deny prized earmarks to members who dared to oppose the leadership’s plan to defund American troops and their mission in Iraq. Democratic legislators got federal funding for spinach, tropical fish, and other pet projects, in exchange for their support for a bill that gave al Qaeda a timetable for American surrender.

And with middle-class families in the midst of filing their tax returns, House Democrats continued their irresponsible run in late March by passing a budget containing the largest tax increase in American history in order to pay for the Democrats’ new spending.

All this, in fewer than 100 days.

While disappointing, the Democrats’ failure on pork should not be surprising. The warning signs were there all along.

Last September, when House Republicans brought earmark reform legislation to the floor and passed it, virtually every Democrat voted “no.” The reform bill, which went into effect immediately upon passage, required public disclosure of the names of all earmark sponsors — the first time such legislation had ever been passed.

As House Majority Leader at the time, I argued no legislator — even one with the most noble of intentions — should have the power to anonymously spend millions of dollars in taxpayer money. Republicans agreed, and voted for change. But most Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Rahm Emanuel, voted “no.”

Shortly after Democrats won the majority, the New York Times reported Speaker-elect Pelosi and other Democratic leaders were considering a plan to gut the earmark disclosure rules passed by Republicans so that they would apply only to “district-specific” earmarks requested by members — meaning they wouldn’t have applied to earmarks such as those swapped for favors by now-imprisoned former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

Under pressure, the new leaders ultimately abandoned that idea, opting instead to put a bill on the floor that renewed and even expanded on the GOP earmark reforms they’d voted against months earlier. But in light of the Democrats’ subsequent actions, it seems clear that decision was driven by political calculation, rather than a commitment to reform.

Getting earmark reform passed last year was a difficult process, and it came too late to impact our party’s fate at the polls. But a better Republican Conference emerged from the process — a conference that had begun to rededicate itself to reform and fiscal responsibility.

The Office of Management & Budget (OMB) has called on Congress to cut the number of earmarks in half this year — to about $9.5 billion, according to OMB estimates. This is a reasonable and worthy goal that would build on the progress started last year under the Republican majority. I’ve also called on Speaker Pelosi to fix the loopholes in the Democrats’ new House rules that allowed them to pass an “earmark-free” spending bill that was loaded with funding for earmarks.

So far, unfortunately, there’s been no indication from Democratic leaders that they will affirmatively respond to either call for pork-barrel reform. The reformist zeal Democratic leaders professed three months ago upon taking the majority has all but disappeared. Pork is back, without apology.

Republicans learned our lesson on pork-barrel politics — learned it the hard way. Sadly, it appears the Democrats who now control Congress haven’t learned from our mistakes — and never really intended to.

John Boehner is Republican leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.


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