When control of Congress switched hands in 2006 the new majority promised to end the “culture of corruption” surrounding earmarks and lobbying. Voters soon learned, however, that the goal of the vast majority of members in both parties was to pass just enough reform to calm angry voters while continuing business as usual earmarking.
Despite pledges to cut the number of earmarks in half, Congress spent nearly $15 billion on more than 11,000 earmarks this year. The number of earmark requests currently before the House Appropriations’ Committee alone stands at 23,438, which, if filled, would shatter Congress’ previous record of funding nearly 16,000 earmarks in one year.
Earmarks have proven difficult to restrain because phony partisan attacks (i.e. references to the Republican culture of corruption) have masked the bipartisan support earmarking still enjoys. The true clash of cultures in the debate about earmarks isn’t between Democrats and Republicans, but between the cultures of oversight and parochialism, with the vast majority of members favoring parochialism.
Parochialism is defined as “narrowly restricted in scope or outlook.” In practice, parochialism is a governing philosophy that allows an individual member of Congress to put the best interests of their political career ahead of the best interests of the nation. This is done, of course, in the name of serving one’s district or state. Yet, parochialism makes any long-term thinking and policy-making impossible because it is about what members can “bring home” in the short-term.
The problem with parochialism is that it has no basis in our Constitution and has proven to be harmful to our nation and, consequently, every district and state. As Congress has become more parochial and as the number of earmarks has proliferated since the late 1980’s so has federal spending and our national debt.
Nothing in our oath of office directs members to bring home the bacon. In fact, our oath includes nothing about narrow interests. Instead, we pledge in our oath to “support and defend the Constitution,” a document that leaves no room for today’s reckless and short-sighted parochialism.
Those who believe the Constitution gives Congress a blank check to fund earmarks for teapot museums or peace gardens are ignoring founders like James Madison who famously said, “With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of [enumerated] powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”
Thomas Jefferson also argued against the parochialism that is commonplace in today’s Congress. In a 1796 letter to James Madison, Jefferson warned that sending money to specific local projects would be a “source of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get the most who are the meanest.”
The clear opposition of our founders and the Constitution to today’s form of parochialism is one reason why our nation operated just fine for nearly 200 years before members of Congress broke ground on the earmark favor factory.
The alternative to the culture of parochialism is a culture of oversight and fiscal responsibility. I describe earmarks as the gateway drug to spending addiction because earmarks both force members to vote for bills they wouldn’t otherwise support and because they take our eye off the ball, so to speak.
It’s not surprising that as the number of earmarks has increased the number of oversight hearings has decreased. For example, in 2007, members of Congress requested nearly 32,000 earmarks. Of those requests, 12,000 received funding. Yet, for every oversight hearing held by the House and Senate Appropriations Committee, the committee processed nearly a thousand earmarks. Congress will never take serious steps to reduce our $300 billion in annual waste — much less address the impending bankruptcy of Medicare and Social Security – when members are spending much of their time earmarking.
While these trends are troubling, other signs suggest that the days of the earmark favor factory are numbered. The one reform Congress passed — simple transparency — has opened a Pandora’s Box that is slowly but surely exposing the secrets of the earmark favor factory. Now that watchdog groups and the media have an easier time finding and scrutinizing earmarks before they pass rather than after they pass, many politicians who didn’t previously oppose earmarks have now concluded that earmarks are a greater political liability than benefit. Before the 2006 elections only a handful of members swore off earmarks. Today, 39 House members and seven Senators have forsaken earmarks, according to the Club for Growth.
Americans who are disturbed by congressional pork-barrel spending ought to rally around Senator John McCain who has pledged, as President, to veto spending bills that contain pork. Senator McCain understands the big picture economic reality that Congress will never get serious about our big challenges when it’s chasing pigs.