Earmark Ban Only Treats a Symptom, Not the Problem

The Associated Press is reporting on the unsurprising attempt by special interests and their political benefactors to get around President Obama’s ban on earmarks in the massive “stimulus” bill taking shape in Congress.

They’re [lobbyists and lawmakers] just working around it — and perhaps inadvertently making the process more secretive. The projects run the gamut: a Metrolink station that needs building in Placentia, Calif.; a stretch of beach in Sandy Hook, N.J., that could really use some more sand; a water park in Miami. There are thousands of projects like those that once would have been gotten money upfront but now are left to scramble for dollars at the back end of the process as “ready to go” jobs eligible for the stimulus plan. The result, as The Associated Press learned in interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers, lobbyists and state and local officials, is a shadowy lobbying effort that may make it difficult to discern how hundreds of billions in federal money will be parceled out.

As distasteful and corrupting as congressional earmarking of taxpayer money is, earmarking is only a symptom of the problem – not the problem as some well-intentioned lawmakers imply.  The real problem is that few, if any, limitations remain on what our federal masters can spend our money on.  For example, it matters little if a water park in Miami is funded through a Senator’s explicit wishes in an appropriations bill or if it receives the money via one of the executive branch’s numerous “economic development” granting programs.  Thus, lawmakers upset with earmarking should devote more effort to killing the programs that allow for such expenditures to occur in the first place.  (For a perfect example of lawmaker inconsistency on this subject, see here.)

More from the AP story:

Instead, the money will be doled out according to arcane formulas spelled out in the bill and in some cases based on the decisions of Obama administration officials, governors and state and local agencies that will choose the projects. “Somebody’s going to earmark it somewhere,” said Howard Marlowe, a consultant for a coalition working to preserve beaches. Lobbyists are hard at work figuring out ways to grab a share of the money for their clients, but the new rules mean they’re doing so indirectly — and sometimes in ways that are impossible to track.

Tinkering with allocation formulas is a time-honored tradition in Congress.  HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG), which would get an extra $1 billion in the current House version of the “stimulus,” offers a good example.  According to Cato’s Chris Edwards:

The Northeast-Midwest Institute represents a group of 18 states stretching from Vermont to Minnesota…Interestingly, this institute both lobbies for federal aid to its member states and receives federal aid itself. Audits show that the institute receives about $800,000 annually from 12 different federal grant programs. The Northeast-Midwest Institute’s website boasts about its lobbying prowess…The CDBG program…illustrates how technical the battles over aid can be. One item in the formula that distributes CDBG funding to the states is “housing built before 1940.” How did this obscure item get into the CDBG formula? The Northeast-Midwest Institute got a member of Congress to insert it into legislation in 1977 in order to tilt aid toward older cities.

The CDBG program formula has been stretched to the point that even relatively wealthy communities can get in on the fun.  And, just as has been the case with earmarked money, the result is often corruption.  For instance, a 2007 HUD Inspector General report found that the City of Chicopee, Massachusetts had spent $1.1 million in CDBG money on projects in an affluent neighborhood that just happened to contain the home of the city’s mayor.  In 2005, the mayor was arrested on extortion charges related to campaign contributions received from a developer the mayor tried to assist in obtaining CDBG-funded projects.

The Real Sprawl Problem: Government

Should we really give another trillion dollars to a government that doesn’t know how big it already is?

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack… learned that his new workplace contains a post office, fitness centers, cafeterias and 6,900 employees. But he remained uncertain about exactly how many employees he supervises nationwide.

“I asked how many employees work at USDA, and nobody really knows,” he said.

De-Emphasis 101

Greg Pierce of the Washington TimesInside Politics column recently investigated whether the Obama administration was dropping the overwrought phrase “war on terror.”

De-emphasizing the war metaphor would be a significant change. But if it is a deliberate change, the White House does not want to acknowledge it.

You see, trumpeting de-emphasis doesn’t generally work…

A Different Kind of Ownership Society

In the Christian Science Monitor today, Southern Illinois University professor William A. Babcock tries to make a case for mandatory national service – two years of forced toil in politically specified areas of “national need” that would be rewarded with two free years of college (and, presumably, no free years in jail). In addition, Babcock touts a bunch of valuable lessons that “youth corps” slav…er…members would learn, including how to be “more worldly wise,” whatever that means, and how to be “more fiscally self-sufficient.” Right…

I can really only see two lessons being taught by a national service program like the one Babcock proposes: (1) a college education is little more than a parting gift, not the way to gain truly advanced knowledge and skills, and (2) the state owns you. 

Unfortunately, Prof. Babcock is not alone in endorsing a bizarro ”ownership society.” In fact, some guy who just became president, while stopping short of calling for mandatory service (but not the taxation to pay for it) is almost right there with the professor. It’s radical change we should all hope we’re not forced to believe in.

Kirsten Gillibrand, a Not-Very-Blue-Dog Democrat

Journalists are calling the newly appointed senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, a “fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrat.” Even some conservatives like Ed Morrissey have bought the line that she’s a fiscal conservative. It’s hard to find fiscally conservative Democrats. Have we indeed finally found one? Let’s go to the tape.

The National Taxpayers Union rates members of Congress on “all votes that could significantly affect the amounts of federal taxes, spending, debt, or regulatory impact” – 427 House votes in 2007.  In that session of Congress, the only one that Gillibrand served in for which scores have been calculated, Gillibrand voted with the taxpayers 7 percent of the time. That’s right, 7 percent. That makes her just as fiscally conservative as Rep. Barney Frank, Rep. Maxine Waters, and Rep. Henry Waxman. (Though, to be sure, it makes her just slightly more fiscally conservative than Rep. Rahm Emanuel, whom the newspapers have told us is a centrist.)

The ratings from Citizens Against Government Waste, on spending, earmark, and porkbarrel bills, tell the same story: Rep. Gillibrand voted against wasteful spending 8 percent of the time.

And similarly at the Club for Growth ratings: Gillibrand got a rating of 12. On the Club’s ratings, she never once voted in the interests of taxpayers, but she did vote for the U.S.-Peru free trade agreement. She also voted against reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. Combined with her 90 percent rating from the ACLU and her A rating from the NRA, maybe she is indeed a free-trader and a civil libertarian.

But the search for a fiscally conservative Democrat goes on.

Saying Nothing Gives Obama the Upper Hand

A terrific Washington Post article on Al-Qaeda’s reaction to Barack Obama features Paul Pillar of Georgetown, who chaired one of the panels in our recent conference on counterterrorism strategy.

The article, titled “To Combat Obama, Al-Qaeda Hurls Insults” is a great window into the rhetorical battle that terrorists seek with their opponents.

Al-Qaeda’s leaders are desperately trying to paint the United States during an Obama Administration as equivalent to the United States during a Bush Administration. Among audiences close to them ideologically and physically, they must maintain the narrative that our country is a font of evil. If they don’t, they’ll lose people’s interest, they’ll lose recruits, and they’ll lose support.

At the conference (video and audio available here), Marc Sageman observed how confounded by Obama the conversations on jihadi Web sites have been. It just doesn’t square with their thesis about the United States to have the grandson of a Kenyan goatherd become president.

The right response to the epithets Al-Qaeda lobs is nothing. Al-Qaeda’s virulence toward Obama would be rewarded if it drew the U.S. president out, and comment from any high official would confirm the importance of that group to the audiences Al-Qaeda is trying to influence.