As if the rushed process that led to the passage of last week’s omnibus spending legislation wasn’t bad enough in itself, members of Congress had more than 4,000 reasons not to vote for the spending bill, in the form of earmarks that made their return to Washington for the first time in a decade.
The process late last week proved chaotic, even by congressional standards. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had to strip out additional Covid funding because some House Democrats opposed paying for the spending by rescinding some of the hundreds of billions in federal bailout funds pledged to states. On the plus side, however, the drama in Washington meant a delayed start to congressional Democrats’ “retreat” (read: vacation) in Philadelphia, resulting in the cancellation of “a performance by storied drag queen Lady Bunny” (seriously).
But the piece de resistance of Washington corruption came with the return of earmarks—367 pages of them. At a time our nation faces $30 trillion in debt—not to mention rising inflation—lawmakers saw fit to spend your money on things like $3 million for a museum dedicated to the life of Mahatma Gandhi.
Gateway Drug to More Spending
The problem comes not just from spending on such comparatively frivolous projects that local governments or non-profits can and should fund instead of Washington. The projects give lawmakers a reason to vote for otherwise extravagant and fiscally irresponsible legislation.
Consider the words of Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, a senior appropriator, who explained how this pork provides lawmakers “a specific micro-reason” to support the legislation they hadn’t had time to read: “It’s easy to be opposed to things on a macro basis….And Member-directed spending allows you to have something you can go home with.”
In other words: The bill as a whole sucks, but vote for it because you got some federal funding for a teapot museum in your district. (Believe it or not, that actually happened.) That logic turns legislating on its head, with a few million dollars of pork determining votes on a $1.5 trillion bill. It also means that lawmakers like Blunt are cheap dates, who can be “bought off” at a small price compared to the size of the entire legislation.
Don’t Empower Bureaucrats
One argument made by earmark supporters contains at least a bit of logic to it, if only on the surface: “Defenders of earmarks argue that if lawmakers can’t request earmarks, it gives executive branch officials disproportionate power to choose which projects get funded.”
As someone who opposes giving power to unelected bureaucrats, this theory holds superficial appeal. But the true argument for limited government—the one that pro-pork earmarkers dare not make—reveals its specious nature. If lawmakers don’t want to give unelected bureaucrats additional power, they should lower federal spending—and reduce the federal workforce while they’re at it.
But appropriators never want to lower federal spending, because to do so would reduce their own power. Instead they hold up disingenuous straw men arguments to feather their own nests, by arrogating more power to themselves.
Invitation to Corruption
Lest anyone forget, Congress banned earmarks a decade ago because of a series of scandals regarding earmarks and defense contracts that saw multiple members of Congress plead guilty to corruption charges and spend time in jail. Earmark supporters claim that “reforms” making the projects’ sponsors transparent will prevent a recurrence of these scandals. But why should anyone think that a process that almost by definition involves a quid pro quo—vote for this spending bill and I’ll direct pork programs to your district—can function on the up-and-up?
The obvious answer is that it can’t. If Republicans really want to reform Washington, they should pledge that, should they win back control of either house of Congress in the November elections, they will end the return of earmarks almost as quickly as they began. If they can’t even take this minor step to restore their reputation regarding out-of-control federal spending, then the party doesn’t much deserve the chance to govern.