The Corner

Don’t Repeat Earmark Folly

“Stop spending! Stop spending! That’s what we want, stop spending!” That rallying cry from CNBC’s Rick Santelli helped launch the tea parties, which then led to historic Republican victories in 2010 with a mandate to cut wasteful spending, reduce the debt, and stop the growth of government.

The first act by newly elected Republicans after the election was to ban earmarks, the most vivid example of Washington’s waste, corruption, and lost sense of priorities. Earmarks, however, were only a symptom of the personal, parochial, and political interests that endangered our future. Many more reforms are needed to save America from fiscal ruin.

With so much more work to do, it is unthinkable that Congress would be return to the earmark favor factory of the last decade. But as the Bible warns, “a fool repeats his folly,” and now some politicians are already complaining that it’s too hard to pass massive spending bills without the ability to handout earmarks to buy the votes.

That’s exactly the point!

For decades, pork was used to grease the skids to push bloated, over-budget pieces of legislation through Congress. Instead of working hard to pass responsible bills that were good for the country, Washington took the easy way out and passed bills filled with pet projects that were good for reelection campaigns.

#more#It’s as if they didn’t care that our oath of office is to defend a constitutional limited government, not a competition to see who can raid the federal treasury faster for projects in our states. When 535 congressmen and senators think it is their job to take home the bacon, America ends up $16 trillion in debt.

Those who seek a return to earmarks to pass legislation should focus their efforts on reforming our broken system rather than making it worse. The very thought of going back to the corrupt practice represents an alarming lack of commitment to meaningful, long-term change.

Yes, some legislation has stalled without earmarks. This is a good sign, not cause for worry.

Take the mired highway bill, for example. It’s a perfect demonstration of Washington’s insanity. Passed every six years, its funding comes from gas taxes and other highway user fees. That money is put into the Highway Trust Fund — which is now completely depleted. Why? Because thanks to earmarks, Congress forced through bills that spent far more than the trust ever took in.

The last time the highway bill was passed, in 2005 during the Bush White House, it contained 6,300 earmarks and cost $286.4 billion, eventually requiring $35 billion in bailouts to rescue the bankrupt trust fund. One of the earmarks, the Bridge to Nowhere, became the poster child for wasteful spending.

Now, big-spending Republicans and Democrats want to pass a new highway bill that again outspends the trust fund and would require a $50 billion bailout. To these politicians, it’s like the 2010 elections were a dream and the exploding debt doesn’t exist.

It’s time to make a choice.

Either Republicans will keep their word and push for much-needed reforms and relinquish federal power to the states, or the party will relapse in its addiction to spending and continue to help the Democrats drive our nation into bankruptcy.

The solutions are at our fingertips. Republicans have already written the bills to shrink the bloated federal government, empower states, and reduce the tax burden on hard-working Americans. Let’s begin to champion them.

We should devolve the federal highway program to the states so that they can keep their gas taxes, make their own transportation decisions, and voters can better keep local politicians accountable.

And we must reform other areas of government that have relied too heavily on earmarks in recent decades, too.

At the Army Corps of Engineers, Congress should create a transparent and fair way to allocate the spending based on merit, not political connections. Legislation has been introduced to do just that, but too many congressman and senators are more interested in directing the spending than achieving national priorities.

We should reform the process of suspending tariffs on imports necessary to keep American companies competitive in the global marketplace. Businesses, large and small, should be able to petition for relief easily, without having to hire a lobbyist and come begging a member of Congress for a tariff earmark.

Most importantly, we should continue to fight for a balanced-budget amendment so spending more than the country takes in is no longer an option.

Republicans and Democrats must start compromising over how much we have to cut, not how much we want to spend.

If this Congress leads on fiscal reforms America demanded in 2010, they will one day be known as the heroes who saved the country. If it doesn’t, they’ll be known as the fools who threw away the chance to do it.

— Jim DeMint is a Republican senator from South Carolina.


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