In the wake of the recent elections that saw Republicans lose their majority I’ve been reminding my colleagues that the election was not only a referendum on Iraq, but the way Congress does business. Voters were particularly disgusted with the earmark and influence peddling scandals that plagued Congress. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff confirmed taxpayer’s fears when he said the appropriations committees in Congress had become “earmark favor factories” for lobbyists and special interests. The good news coming out of Washington, however, is Congress may finally be getting the message that it’s time to shut down the favor factory.
Two recent developments give me hope the culture of Washington may be changing for the better. First, before Congress adjourned for the year members agreed on a budget plan that killed 10,000 individual earmarks or pork projects. By this act alone, Congress reduced the total number of earmarks by 80% compared to last year and we reduced the dollar amount dedicated to earmarks by $50 billion. Last year, Congress spent $64 billion on special interest earmarks, which is nearly 10 times the size of Oklahoma’s state budget and nearly equal to the $65 billion we spent on veterans’ benefits and services. This year, we financed approximately $14 billion worth of earmarks. The $50 billion difference in the amount we spent on earmarks last year compared to this year is a huge sum—it exceeds the annual gross national product of two out of every three countries on earth. Congress can now direct those funds to more important priorities.
Second, Democratic leaders deserve credit for taking this victory one step further by pledging to freeze spending at current levels for one year, and by promising to not pass any new earmarks until real earmark reform becomes law. Although I will approach this plan with a “trust but verify” mindset, this development could be a major victory for taxpayers and lead to savings of tens of billions of dollars.
When I ran for the Senate I promised to fight wasteful Washington spending and earmarks, in particular, because earmarks are the gateway drug that leads to spending addiction in Congress. In the past five years, discretionary spending increased by 50%. It is no coincidence that during the same period the total cost of earmarks also grew by 50%. In recent years, many members of Congress who were otherwise fiscally conservative voted for bloated spending bills because they didn’t want to lose their earmarks.
I’ve always said reining in earmarks is only the first step in reducing wasteful Washington spending. In the past two years, the Senate subcommittee I chaired found that the federal government wastes about $200 billion per year through improper payments, fraud, duplication and other inefficiencies. Congress’ new pork-free diet, however, is a significant step in the right direction that, if maintained, will change the culture in Washington and make it far easier to address our other financial challenges.
Our greatest financial challenge is what economists refer to as the “demographic tsunami” of retiring baby boomers that will hit our economy by 2012. Boarding up the earmark favor factory means that members of Congress will have more time to focus on higher priorities, such as protecting programs like Social Security and Medicare. If we do nothing to fix those programs, seniors will lose benefits and our children and grandchildren will drown in debt and higher taxes.
The handful of Oklahoma projects that will be delayed while Congress abstains from pork is a small price to pay for the enormous long-term benefits we could gain from a change in direction in Washington. Even in the short-term, going without earmarks for one year means that Oklahoma taxpayers won’t be forced to finance wasteful earmarks in 49 other states, such as Bridges to Nowhere, teapot museums and sculpture parks. Furthermore, any worthwhile earmark for Oklahoma can, and should, be funded within the regular appropriations or competitive grant process.
Next year, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure the Democratic leaders who made these promises do not go back on their word. In the meantime, weary taxpayers should be encouraged by the knowledge that when they rise up and make their voices heard, change in Washington can happen.