A Head-Check on Earmark Reform

Today, President Bush called for reform of budget earmarks, the fiscal baddie de jour. Those are the budget items commonly called “pork projects.” Think of the funding for the World Toilet Summit, for instance, and the obvious jokes about fiscal incontinence.

In this morning’s Rose Garden speech, the president summed up why these projects are bad:

Washington insiders are able to get billions of dollars directed to projects, many of them pork barrel projects that have never been reviewed or voted on by the Congress … Some of the earmarks are not even included in legislation. They are stuffed into committee reports that have never been passed, and are never signed into law. Earmarks often divert precious funds from vital priorities like national defense. And each year they cost the taxpayers billions of dollars.

He closed with what was touted by his press spinners as a grand proposal to curtail earmarks:

Congress needs to adopt real reform that requires full disclosure of the sponsors, the costs, the recipients, and the justifications for every earmark. Congress needs to stop the practice of concealing earmarks in so-called report language. And Congress needs to cut the number and cost of earmarks next year by at least half.

It’s certainly nice to hear this rhetoric coming from the president. And nobody can really object to what he’s proposing. It’s hard to disagree with an attempt to shine some light on what über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff called the “favor factory.” Even Nancy Pelosi has endorsed the goal of “transparency” in earmarking by requiring members of Congress to put their names alongside the projects they sponsor.

These reforms assume that members of Congress will be shamed into stopping these sorts of projects when forced to attach their names to them. But the truth really isn’t that members of Congress don’t want their names affiliated with most of these things. It’s that so many of them do! When earmark sponsors remain anonymous, numerous congressmen could take credit for a single project. There was no way to verify who was telling the truth. Now there is. Think of it as intellectual property protection for government waste. It just might lead to more pressure to multiply the number of earmarks, not less.

Even if “earmarks” as currently defined are monitored and reduced, there are no promises that these silly projects won’t appear in other ways and other places. The congressional budget process is nothing if not a game of reinvention. You can call these spending items Happy Funtime Projects instead and sock them away in another part of the budget. They will still remain the coin of the K Street realm.

Of course, Congress could simply give a bucket of money to an agency, no strings attached. But then it’s also likely a member of the Appropriations committee would write a letter to the department head that reads something like, “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if Project X got some of this pot of money?” Can you really blame a department head who reads a letter like that – from a member of Congress who has power over their budget and oversight of their agency – and takes it seriously? It would strike anyone in that position as similar to Tony Soprano walking into the corner grocery store you own and saying, “Damn shame if anything were to happen to this nice little place.”

Earmark transparency shouldn’t be seen as the endgame of budget reform. It is merely a beginning. Yet the goal should be to reduce the scope of government overall. As long as a culture of spending persists in Washington – fueled by a budget process that commands Uncle Sam to be all things to all people – earmarking in some form will always be with us no matter who is in power.