The Corner

Coburn and Pork’s Corrupting Influence

Senator Coburn’s office just sent these “thoughts” around:

Pork projects, sometimes referred to as earmarks, are wasteful spending projects that are directly requested by members of Congress and are not subject to competitive bidding requirements. One of the most well-known examples of these projects is the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska. However, Congressional spending bills are littered with these types of projects. According to Citzens Against Government Waste, a government watchdog that tracks federal spending, the number of pork projects in 2005 totaled nearly 14,000 at a cost of more than $27 billion, up from 1,439 projects in 1995. Thus, in only ten years, the number of wasteful pork projects increased by 970 percent! When President Roland Reagan vetoed a spending bill in 1997 because it contained 121 earmarks, he remarked, “I haven’t seen this much lard since I handed out blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair.” Congress has turned into an all-you-can-eat pork buffet, and American taxpayers are left to pay the bill and clean up the mess.

The problem with pork, however, is not just its size. The entire earmarking process corrupts Congressional decision-making and erodes the confidence of the American public. To give you a recent example, last June Senator Coburn offered a series of amendments to strike entirely unnecessary pork projects from a spending bill to fund the departments of Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development. Specifically, Senator Coburn questioned the propriety of spending taxpayer dollars on a parking garage in Nebraska and a sculpture park in Washington. Senator Patty Murray of Washington, who is also the highest ranking Democrat on the relevant appropriations subcommittee, took to the Senate floor and threatened those who were inclined to eliminate her sculpture park. “What is good for the goose is good for the gander,” she said. “And I tell my colleagues, if we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next.” Her threat apparently worked, as Senator Coburn’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 86 to 13.

At times, however, Senators never even have the option or ability to vote for or against specific earmarks. In a practice that has become all too common, brand new earmarks and pork projects that were never voted on or considered are often added in a conference report, long after a bill has passed each chamber of Congress – and Senators never have the chance to strike the new projects. To make matters worse, it is not uncommon for Senators to have mere minutes to read a spending bill that may be hundreds of pages long and chock full of pork.

The effect of this process is that high-paid lobbyists who get their project requests inserted at the last minute end up with more power than those who are actually elected to be caretakers of taxpayer dollars. John Fund wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Jack Abramoff “bragged that appropriations committees were ‘earmark favor factories.’” Relatives of elected officials even benefit from their proximity to power. The wife of Tom Daschle was an airline lobbyist while he was Senate Majority Leader, the sons of Minority Leader Harry Reid work as lobbyists in Nevada, and the son of Senator Ted Stevens (a senior member of the Senate appropriations committee) is the chairman of an Alaskan marketing organization that received $500,000 in federal appropriations to paint a salmon on a Boeing 737. The Los Angeles Times reported in June 2003 that “at least 17 senators and 11 members of the House have family members who lobby or work as consultants on government relations, most in Washington and often for clients who rely on the related lawmakers’ goodwill.”

Todd Purdum, a former reporter for The New York Times, recently wrote that the lobbying problem is “broader than Mr. Abramoff” and added that “it also has to do with the astounding growth of the lobbying industry, a growth that has tracked the growth of the federal government itself.” Representative Martin Meehan, quoted later in Mr. Purdum’s article, added, “The scandal here is not that the rules were broken; the scandal is the rules themselves.” When a government spends $2.6 trillion a year, inserts itself into nearly every facet of daily life, and few rules exist to effectively curb (or even illuminate) untoward behavior, should the current lobbying scandal surprise anyone?

Lobbyists can get questionable earmarks inserted into bills at the last minute and elected members of Congress have no ability to amend or strike the earmarks. Through earmarking, members of Congress have the ability to steer taxpayer money to whomever and whatever they wish regardless of the merits. But shouldn’t elected officials also have the ability to strike wasteful earmarks that are added to conference reports under the cloak of night? Shouldn’t members of Congress have more than a few hours to review legislation that spends hundreds of billions of dollars? Shouldn’t taxpayers know which members Congress inserted which earmarks into federal appropriations bills? As they say, sunshine is the best disinfectant.

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