Pork-Barreling Republicans Fighting Earmark Reform

Given the anger of the Republican base over the explosion in federal spending and earmarks during the Bush Presidency, one would think that earmark reform would be a no-brainer for the GOP majority in Congress.

Think again.

Determined appropriators are fighting tooth and nail against meaningful change.

While much of the battle against reform is taking place behind the scenes, sometimes the appropriators take the fight public. For instance, in a recent column he penned with Sen. Larry Craig (R.-Idaho), Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson (most recent NTU rating: 53%) argued against real reform because “eliminating earmarks would shift responsibility for setting federal spending away from Congress to the federal bureaucracies.” To Simpson and Craig (both members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, respectively), earmarks are a sign of good government because politicians—instead of “bureaucrats”—are giving detailed direction on spending.

Simpson is not alone in making this claim about the virtues of earmarks. Departing Republican Congressman Tom DeLay (Tex.) has also made this argument. A DeLay spokesman summarizes: “Mr. DeLay was of the mind-set that members of Congress were more adjusted to the funding needs of their district than federal-agency bureaucrats.”

Awful Record

As bad as the federal bureaucracy is, it’s hard to make the claim that politicians receiving millions in campaign contributions from those with vested interests in appropriations (think former California Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham) make decisions that are in any way better for American taxpayers.

In fact, Congress has a pretty awful record of reallocating spending away from higher priority projects and shifting those dollars towards nonsense. Consider:

  • The $1.1-million appropriation for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  • A $1.7-million earmark to study the cultivation of shitake mushrooms.
  • $50 million for an indoor rainforest in Iowa City, Iowa.

But the sad record of the Republican Congress on earmarks is more than just a matter of wasting billions of taxpayer dollars in a drive to curry favor with well-heeled donors. Congressional pork-barrel spending displaces more important defense or homeland security expenditures. Not to be overly dramatic, but this misallocation of federal resources could literally mean the difference between life and death for Americans.

Disproportionate Share

Based on their political power in the Senate, rural, less-populated states have been getting a disproportionate share of homeland security expenditures. This has been good news for North Pole, Alaska (recipient of a large federal grant), but bad news for taxpayers who would like to see dollars go to the highest probability threats. Wyoming receives more in per-capita homeland security expenditures than Washington, D.C. As columnist Debra Saunders opines, “National security and American lives may be at stake—but the forces of pork-barrel spending will win out.”

In defense spending, for years, local politics has driven the expenditure of billions of dollars.

Members of Congress have long fought to protect local military bases, even as the Department of Defense (under both Democrat and Republican administrations) has pleaded to reallocate those dollars to more pressing needs. Similarly, the biggest obstacle DOD has traditionally faced when trying to terminate weapons systems has been the parochialism of Representatives whose districts are involved in the building of those weapons.

State Control

There’s another broad swath of federal spending where the Simpson-DeLay logic utterly fails: spending that should be devolved to the states. When it comes to the building of roads and bridges, for instance, Washington—either bureaucrats or politicians—shouldn’t be making the decisions. Arizona Republican Congressman Jeff Flake has it right when he asks, “Who would citizens rather trust with their money: a local or state official, or an appropriations staffer in a cubicle in Washington?”

The Simpson-DeLay claims about the virtue of earmarks is really just political rhetoric designed to justify the spending excesses of Republican rule. Beyond flawed reasoning, these types of statements tell voters who support limited government that at least some GOP politicians have not gotten the message of anger, choosing oily rhetoric over a change in course.

Losing Core Support

It’s not clear that the appropriators’ counter-offensive on pork is having much impact with Republican loyalists. There are increasing stories of core supporters who have told the party they are cutting off their contributions.

And indeed, it’s not just the GOP base that faults Republicans in Washington for spending excesses as can be seen in this Time magazine poll.

Whether the Republican majority in Congress can muster the votes to pass real earmark reform will be a crucial test. If the appropriators triumph and reform fails, an angered base will have one more reason to walk away from the GOP in the November mid-term elections.

Who would do a better job with “management of government spending”?

Democrats 46%
Republicans 31%
Both 1%
Neither 15%
Don’t Know 7%

Source: Time Magazine/SRBI poll of 1,003 adults taken March 22-23, 2006