Tag: Earmarks

Earmarks, Spending, and the Scope of the Federal Government

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Republican senators were turning their back on a massive spending bill stuffed full of their own earmarks. Those earmarks, the Post noted, included quite a few to benefit Mississippi, the home state of Senators Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran:

Wicker, along with Cochran, had by then already sponsored earmarks in the spending bill that would fund an airport expansion in Tunica ($1.75 million), new riverwalk lights in Columbus ($300,000), improvements to a hiking and biking trail in Hattiesburg ($700,000) and improvements to an assortment of bridges, highways, trails, railways and streets across Mississippi.

A burgeoning Tea Party revolt against earmarks caused the bill to be withdrawn. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid held a press conference to defend earmarks as the constitutional duty of the people’s elected representatives. (And, as many of our friends have emailed to tell us, held up a copy of the Cato pocket Constitution — 10 for $10 this Christmas season! — to make his point. Ah, well.)

But the real problem here is not earmarks. The underlying issue is not whether members of Congress or unelected bureaucrats spend the money that Congress appropriates for highways and the like. The real question is, why are local roads and bridges and hiking trails and riverwalk lights being paid for by taxpayers across the country?

If the people of Columbus, Mississippi, want new lights on their riverwalk, why are they asking the families of New Hampshire and Indiana and Oregon to pay for them? Shouldn’t they pay for their own lights, and let the people of Hattiesburg pay for their own hiking trails, and let the people of Oregon pay for any roads, bridges, or hiking trails that they value?

The fundamental problem is not earmarks. It is that the federal government is paying for clearly local and state responsibilities. Opponents of excessive spending should not stop at an earmark ban. They should insist that the federal government pay for national needs and leave state and local projects to the states and towns that want them.

Taxpayers Got a Big Christmas Present Yesterday, but It Wasn’t the Tax Bill

There’s a lot of attention being paid to yesterday’s landslide vote in the House to prevent a big tax increase next year. If you’re a glass-half-full optimist, you will be celebrating the good news for taxpayers. If you’re a glass-half-empty pessimist, you will be angry because the bill also contains provisions to increase the burden of government spending as well as some utterly corrupt tax loopholes added to the legislation so politicians could get campaign cash from special interest groups.

If you want some unambiguously good news, however, ignore the tax deal and celebrate the fact that Senator Harry Reid had to give up his attempt to enact a pork-filled, $1 trillion-plus spending bill. This “omnibus appropriation” not only had an enormous price tag, it also contained about 6,500 earmarks. As I explained in the New York Post yesterday, earmarks are “special provisions inserted on behalf of lobbyists to benefit special interests. The lobbyists get big fees, the interest groups get handouts and the politicians get rewarded with contributions from both. It’s a win-win-win for everyone — except the taxpayers who finance this carousel of corruption.”

This sleazy process traditionally has enjoyed bipartisan support, and many Republican senators initially were planning to support the legislation notwithstanding the voter revolt last month. But the insiders in Washington underestimated voter anger at bloated and wasteful government. Thanks to talk radio, the Internet (including sites like this one), and a handful of honest lawmakers, Reid’s corrupt legislation suddenly became toxic.

The resulting protests convinced GOPers — even the big spenders from the Appropriations Committee — that they could no longer play the old game of swapping earmarks for campaign cash. This is a remarkable development and a huge victory for the Tea Party movement.

Here’s part of the Washington Post report on this cheerful development:

Senate Democrats on Thursday abandoned their efforts to approve a comprehensive funding bill for the federal government after Republicans rebelled against its $1.2 trillion cost and the inclusion of nearly 7,000 line-item projects for individual lawmakers.

…Instead, a slimmed-down resolution that would fund the government mostly at current levels will come before the Senate, and Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it will pass by Saturday.

…The majority leader’s surrender on the spending bill marked a final rebuke for this Congress to the old-school system of funding the government, in which the barons of the Appropriations Committee decided which states would receive tens of millions of dollars each year.

…Almost every Senate Republican had some favor in the bill, but as voter angst about runaway deficits grew before the midterm elections, Republicans turned against the earmark practice.

This is a very positive development heading into next year, but it is not a permanent victory. Some Republicans are true believers in the cause of limited government, but there are still plenty of corrupt big spenders as well as some Bush-style “compassionate conservatives” who think buying votes with other people’s money somehow makes one a caring person.

In other words, fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Partiers have won an important battle, but this is just one skirmish in a long war. If we want to save America from becoming another Greece, we better make sure that we redouble our efforts next year. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

‘Prince of Pork’ to Chair Appropriations

House Republican leaders went with Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) – a.k.a. “The Prince of Pork” – to chair the House Appropriations Committee. As I wrote last week, the prospect of Rogers chairing Appropriations is about as inspiring as re-heated meatloaf when it comes to his potential for pushing serious spending reforms.

Republican leaders in the House chose to ignore the concerns of tea party activists and other proponents of limited government, who were more supportive of Rep. Jack Kingston’s (R-GA) dark-horse push for the chairmanship. Kingston’s plan to “change the culture” on Appropriations offered a lot of positive ideas suggesting that he was more in tune with the voters that gave Republicans the majority.

Politico reported that Kingston received “the cold shoulder” from the House leadership in his bid to chair appropriations. Instead, presumptive Speaker of the House John Boehner supported spending-hawk Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) bid for a seat on the committee. That’s nice, but Flake himself appears to recognize that his appointment could amount to a token gesture if old bull spenders end up ruling the roost:

“If it’s just putting a few conservatives on the committee, and leaving the current structure pretty much in place, that’s not enough.”

Some congressional Republicans have defended Rogers’ chairmanship, saying that he’ll be fine if he sticks to what he says he’s going to do. A long-time champion of earmarking, Rogers did agree to go along with a ban on the tawdry practice a few weeks ago, which was convenient timing.

Will the leopard change his spots?

The left-wing Think Progress blog recently used a FOIA request to obtain a letter Rogers sent to the Department of Health and Human Services requesting ObamaCare money for a community service center in his district. No earmarks? No problem for Hal Rogers. He can just go the time-honored route of policymakers heckling federal agencies for pork. Earmarks represent just one of many ways that parochial-minded members steer benefits to their districts at the expense of taxpayers and the general public good.

According to Bloomberg, Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader called Rogers “the very model of an old-fashioned pork-barrel politician who builds an empire out of government spending.” Roger’s website contains numerous pictures of him attending local photo-ops for projects he helped fund with federal taxpayers’ money. (I suppose one argument in his favor is that lifting all those ceremonial spades means he’s probably in good shape to handle the rigors of chairmanship.)

The support for Rogers from House Republican leaders is a slap in the face of voters who demanded change in Washington—change from the big-spending ways of both Democrats and Republicans.

This Is Earmark Transparency

This morning, a database of FY 2011 earmark requests was released by Taxpayers Against Earmarks, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and my own WashingtonWatch.com. With House Republicans generally eschewing earmarks this year, members of Congress and senators still sought over 39,000 earmarks, valued at over $130 billion dollars. Learn more on the relevant pages at Taxpayers for Common Sense, Taxpayers Against Earmarks, and WashingtonWatch.com.

This is transparency. The production of organized, machine-readable data has allowed these differing groups—an advocacy organization, a spending analysis group, and a “Web 2.0” transparency site—to expand the discussion about earmarks. The data is available to any group, to the press, and to political scientists and researchers.

Earmarking is a questionable practice, and, anticipating public scrutiny, House and Senate Republicans have determined to eschew earmarks for the time being. But the earmark requests in this database are still very much “live.” They could be approved in whatever spending legislation Congress passes for the 2011 fiscal year. They also tell us how our representatives acted before they got careful about earmarks.

Earmarks are a small corner of the federal policy process, of course, but when all legislation, budgeting, spending, and regulation has become more transparent—truly transparent, Senator Durbin—the public’s oversight of Congress will be much, much better. As I noted at our December 2008 conference, “Just Give Us the Data,” progressives believe that it would validate government programs and root out corruption. (That’s fine—corruption and ongoing failure in federal programs are not preferable.) I believe that demand for government will drop. The average American family pays about $100 per day for the operation of the federal government currently. That’s a lot.

Again, you can see how this data is in use, and you can use it yourself, by visiting Taxpayers for Common Sense, Taxpayers Against Earmarks, and WashingtonWatch.com. On the latter site, you can see a map of earmarks in your state and lists of earmarks by member of Congress and representative, then vote and comment on individual earmarks.

At considerable expense and effort, these sites have done what President Obama asked Congress to do in January. If earmarking is to continue, Congress could produce earmark data as a matter of course itself: The appropriations committees could take earmark requests online and immediately publish them, rather than using the opaque exchange of letters, phone calls, and—who knows—homing pigeons.

Congress should modernize and make itself more transparent. We’re showing the way.

Rep. Kingston’s Spending Cut Plan

An indicator of the incoming House Republican majority’s seriousness about cutting spending will be which members the party selects to head the various committees.

Many of the members in line to chair committees leave a lot to be desired from a limited government perspective (see here and here). In particular, the top candidates in line to chair the critical House Appropriations Committee, Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), are about as inspiring as re-heated meatloaf when it comes to their potential for pushing serious spending reforms.

According to the Wall Street Journal, appropriator Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), is eyeing the chairman’s gavel even though he’s only fifth in line in terms of seniority. Kingston has put together a spending restraint plan in PowerPoint for consideration by the 26 member Republican Steering Committee, which will decide on committee chairs.

Although the Journal notes that Kingston is “no spending virgin,” there is a lot to like about his plan, which is promisingly entitled “Changing the Culture: A New Vision for the House Appropriations Committee.”

Here are my thoughts on the plan’s contents:

  • One slide shows a list of “Big Stuff” and places at the top “State Addiction to the Federal Government.” The language is perfect and indicates that Kingston recognizes that federal aid to the states is a significant issue that needs to be addressed. Reinstituting “fiscal federalism” is one of the chief principles of reform addressed on the Downsizing Government website.
  • The same slide acknowledges the trillion dollar cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This inclusion perhaps signals that Kingston is prepared to get serious about reining in defense spending, unlike many Republicans.
  • Kingston proposes new spending caps that would work to eventually reduce total federal spending to 18 percent of GDP. He notes that “This approach would require Congress to focus on the actual problem of spending, as opposed to deficits, which are a symptom.” Only interest on the debt would be off limits from sequestration should Congress fail to adhere to the spending caps.
  • Kingston calls federal grants “the new earmarks” and singles out the $7.2 billion broadband grant program for criticism, noting that it “pay[s] companies to do what they would do on their own.” As I recently explained, eliminating earmarks but keeping the federal grant programs that fund the same activities would amount to a Pyrrhic victory.
  • Kingston calls for more “budget hawks” on the appropriations committee, and singles out spending reformer Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) for inclusion on the committee. He also calls for getting “members off subcommittees in which they are unable to take hard votes.” Amen. If Republicans want to cut spending, then they need to put members on the committees who will actually vote to do it.

The Journal explains that the GOP leadership, in particular incoming House Speaker John Boehner, had better take Kingston’s candidacy seriously:

Officially, committee chairs are selected by the 26 or so person GOP Steering Committee, but Mr. Boehner has five votes on the panel and he can block anyone from getting the nod. A Steering Committee decision can be overturned by a vote of the full GOP House conference, and the leadership should worry that selecting someone like Mr. Rogers could lead to a rank-and-file revolt.

Republicans claim to be the party of fiscal probity and that they’ve learned from their demise in 2006. Mr. Kingston’s proposals are the kind of creative thinking that Republicans are going to need to carry out the principles and agenda they say they believe in.

When tea party voters helped give the Republicans a second chance at reining in government spending, they didn’t have in mind re-heated meatloaf – they want steak. Boehner and the House GOP leadership would be wise to oblige, or else these voters might dine elsewhere in 2012.

No, Senator Durbin, Earmarks Are Not Transparent

This morning the full Senate voted down a proposed rule that would have barred earmarks for the next two years. Part of the reason? Earmarks are transparent.

Here’s Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), quoted in a Hill article:

There is full disclosure in my office of every single request for an appropriation. We then ask those who have made the requests to have a full disclaimer of their involvement in the appropriation, so it’s there for the public record. This kind of transparency is virtually unprecedented.

Senator Durbin doesn’t know transparency. Take a look at Senator Durbin’s earmark disclosures. Yes, you can read through them, one by one. But can you make a list of recipients? Can you add up the totals? Can you search for common words in the brief explanations for each earmark? Can you make a map showing where recipients of Senator Durbin’s requests are?

No, no, no, and no.

That’s because Senator Durbin puts his request disclosures out as scanned PDFs. Someone on his staff takes a letter and puts it on a scanner, making a PDF document of the image. Then the staffer posts that image on the senator’s web site. It’s totally useless if you want to use the data for anything. Notably, Senator Durbin doesn’t even include the addresses of his earmark recipients.

Last year, visitors to my transparency project, WashingtonWatch.com, laboriously took earmark disclosures like Senator Durbin’s and gathered the data from them. Now—because of their work—you can see a map of Illinois earmarks and the list of Senator Durbin’s requests for FY 2010.

Early this year, President Obama called for “a comprehensive, bipartisan, state-of-the-art disclosure database that allows Americans to examine the details of every proposed earmark before a vote is taken.” He wasn’t talking about WashingtonWatch.com or the public doing this work—he was talking about Congress putting a database together with earmark data in useful formats.

Later in the early part of the year, I worked with a small group of transparency activists to show Congress how to do earmark transparency. Earmarkdata.org has our earmark data schema—the guide to producing earmark information in a way the public can use. (You can sign a petition there to support earmark transparency.)

No, Senator Durbin, your earmarks are not transparent. We’re producing the state-of-the-art database. We’re setting the precedent for transparency. Your PDF-image disclosures are a day late and a dollar short.

Here are the votes on the earmark moratorium taken in the Senate this morning. A “No” vote supports continuation of earmarking. A “Yes” vote is opposed to earmarking.

Earmarks Are the Gateway Drug to Big Government Addiction

I haven’t commented much on earmarks, but an oped in today’s Washington Post was has goaded me into action. A former Reagan Administration appointee (the Gipper must be spinning in his grave), who now makes a living by selling our money to the highest bidder, made several ridiculous assertions, including:

…earmarks are largely irrelevant to balancing the budget. The $16.5 billion Congress spent on earmarks in fiscal year 2009 sounds like a lot, but leaves a minuscule footprint - about 1 percent of 2009’s $1.4 trillion deficit. Those seriously concerned about deficits should look elsewhere for meaningful spending reductions. …On Capitol Hill, party leaders must appeal to lawmakers’ interests as well as their principles to get the votes they need. The leaders must be able to offer incentives - such as earmarks - to win votes on difficult issues. Earmarks are not the only possible incentives, nor do they need to be the most compelling ones. But they are a tool for taking care of members who might otherwise stray.

The author is right that earmarks technically are not a big share of the budget. But he conveniently forgets to address the real issue, which is the degree to which earmarks are the proverbial apple in the congressional Garden of Eden. Members who otherwise might want to defend taxpayers are lured into becoming part of the problem. This is how I described the process in arecent PolitiFact article.

Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, …adds that the existence of earmarks increases the upward pressure on federal spending indirectly, since lawmakers “know they need to support the relevant powers on the spending committees in order to have their earmarks approved.” Mitchell calls earmarks a “gateway drug” that “seduces members into treating the federal budget as a good thing that can be milked for home-state/district projects.”

Since the author of the Washington Post column is trying, at least in part, to appeal to advocates of smaller government, I’m also puzzled that he says earmarks are good because they help grease the wheels so that more legislation can be passed. Does he really think reminding us about the “Cornhusker Kickback” and “Louisiana Purchase” will make us more sympathetic to his argument? Yes, it’s theoretically possible that congressional leaders will use earmarks to help pass legislation shrinking the burden of government. It’s also possible that I’ll play centerfield next year for the Yankees. But I’m not holding my breath for either of these things to happen.

Last but not least, earmarks are utterly corrupt. The fact that they are legal does not change the fact that they finance a racket featuring big payoffs to special interests, who give big fees to lobbyists (often former staffers and Members), who give big contributions to  politicians. Everyone wins…except taxpayers.

This is one of the many reasons why I did this video a couple of years ago with the simple message that big government means big corruption.