Politics & Policy

Getting Porker Protection

Is your congressman earmark guilty?

The White House and Congress are currently in a significant dispute over the federal budget. The fiscal year ended a few weeks ago and the Senate has yet to send the president one appropriations bill. The smart money suggests that the budget will turn into one large omnibus bill before the end of the year that could become the vehicle for a lot of egregious earmarks.

With this, expect several members of Congress to use every trick in the book to justify these budget-busting pork projects. Having worked in Washington, D.C., for the past four years, I’ve heard every lame excuse imaginable. But porkers in Congress continue to use these excuses because the general public isn’t aware of how hollow they really are.

“I know my district better than some unelected bureaucrat!”

Members defend their earmarks because they think they know how to spend money more wisely than some unelected, faceless bureaucrat.

Actually, the truth is just the opposite.

There are currently two members of Congress in prison, and several more under investigation for corruption. In a lot of these cases, earmarks were involved. This is because the earmark process allows members to exploit their positions of power.

Earlier this year, Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton earmarked $1 million for a museum in New York commemorating the Woodstock Festival. A few weeks later, the recipients of the earmark donated $29,000 to the senators’ campaigns. Was this a quid pro quo? Who knows? But because of the earmark process, this kind of “circular fundraising” happens all of the time.

Moreover, why should the Woodstock Museum be funded by the federal government, when it is clearly a parochial project? Instead, politics should be taken out of the spending process. Congress should set the overall budget allocations, while the agencies should be in charge of the day-to-day spending priorities. When politics interfere with that process, money gets misallocated, abuse is rife, and tax dollars get wasted.

If that kind of reform is too big for Congress to swallow, then they just need to force earmarks to go through the normal spending process, which requires public hearings, committee votes, and rigorous oversight. But it is precisely because they don’t want their earmarks to be exposed to scrutiny that they avoid any meaningful reform.

“Earmarks don’t increase spending.”

Some members of Congress claim that earmarks don’t increase spending because they are contained within the budget cap. It is true that after the budget resolution is accepted, there is a self-imposed budget cap on overall spending. Earmarks are simply carved out of that total. So if earmarks are removed from the budget, technically speaking, no money is saved. The money would just be re-appropriated. But this is a very narrow interpretation. A broader explanation would suggest that if there weren’t any earmarks, the budget cap could initially be reduced.

Also, pork projects are often “air dropped” into conference reports after the House and Senate initially pass their versions of a bill. For instance, the price tag on a recent bill to fund water projects increased by more than 60% after both chambers of Congress approved it. This was largely due to pork.

Pork projects are the currency of corruption in Congress. There’s an unwritten rule that you can have your pork, but only if you vote for the overall bill in which it is contained. This allows big bills to become even bigger bills. Clever members can also straddle the fence on an important bill and wait to be wooed with pork projects in order to bless them with their vote. It’s a nasty business, but it happens all the time.

“It’s for the children!”

A member of Congress might admit that pork projects like the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska or the Teapot Museum in North Carolina are wasteful and should be eliminated, but they will simultaneously defend their own projects as extremely worthy — especially the earmarks for heart-tugging projects involving medical research, children, or veterans.

But this is a straw man argument. Even the most meritorious projects are still financed through a corrupt process. An earmark, by its very definition, doesn’t allow for competitive bidding. It doesn’t allow for public hearings. It doesn’t allow for oversight. An earmark circumvents all of the safeguards that seek to protect tax dollars from being poorly spent. So even the most worthy earmarks – which supporters will plead are “vital,” “essential,” and “crucial” – are still wasteful pork projects.

“I’m fighting to get our fair share!”

I believe this is the most disgusting argument in defense of pork. A member will confess that the earmark process is broken. He’ll claim it’s wasteful and is susceptible to abuse, but he still supports pork projects because he believes he has a responsibility to his constituents to claim their “fair share.” After all, the thinking goes, if Kansas taxpayers don’t receive pork, then they will just be paying for the pork in other states while getting nothing in return.

The argument is incredibly infantile. At what point in the future can we expect members of Congress to base their behavior on principle rather than on childish excuses?

Being in Congress isn’t about being a porker on behalf of your state or district; it’s about defending and upholding the Constitution.

– Andrew Roth is the Director of Government Affairs for the Club for Growth in Washington, DC. The Club for Growth’s recent RePork Card, which shows how every member of the U.S. House voted on 50 separate anti-pork amendments, can be found here.

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