One of the justifications members of Congress offer for earmarking is that the Constitution gives the legislative branch the “power of the purse.” Congressional earmarkers often denigrate the executive branch’s inability to effectively allocate funds. But just because the federal bureaucracy does an abysmal job of spending taxpayer money, it doesn’t mean lawmakers would do any better.
The following example out of Florida illustrates why lawmakers are just as likely as bureaucrats to misspend taxpayer money. According to the St. Petersburg Times, a developer who has never had a successful project was able to convince four members of Florida’s congressional delegation into supporting a $500,000 earmark for a Tampa affordable housing project. The developer had already wasted $563,000 in federal and state taxpayer funds on housing projects that now “sit vacant and rotting.”
According to the article, suckering more money out of Congress was apparently pretty easy:
But the federal earmark process involves little vetting of recipients. So the four members of Congress didn't know that Foster had never successfully completed a housing project. They didn't know he exaggerated the involvement of his partners in the proposal he presented to them. They didn't know he has a record of mishandling grants for much less ambitious projects. And they didn't know his nonprofit has faced legal troubles, including IRS liens for unpaid payroll taxes.
The lawmakers, who represent Florida and the Tampa Bay area, say they made their decision based largely on information provided by Foster. Others say he never should have gotten a cent.
"I am flabbergasted that this guy's getting another $500,000. That's just insane," said Craig Rothburd, an attorney working pro bono for the Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition. The coalition directed a $400,000 state grant to Foster to develop housing for homeless people. It is now suing Foster for fraud and breach of contract.
Might these lawmakers have put a wee bit more effort into scrutinizing the developer had the money been their own?
Regardless of whether federal funds are allocated by the bureaucracy or earmarked by politicians, both are spending other people’s money. Neither has the incentive to conduct the due diligence necessary to ensure that the money is properly spent. This is one reason why the federal government’s “affordable housing” efforts have been a failure.
Therefore, the question of whether the executive or legislative branch should have more control over spending is a secondary concern. The primary focus should be on efforts to restrict the government’s activities to the small number defined in the Constitution.