Republicans Must Rein in Earmarks

Morale is low among House Republicans.  After three special election losses in traditionally Republican congressional districts, the reality is beginning to sink in with many of my colleagues that our time in the political wilderness may last longer than one election cycle. 

It’s difficult to blame voters.  After all, if Republicans did regain the majority, would we exhibit any more of a commitment to limited government than the Democrats currently controlling Congress?  Just this year, a majority of Republicans voted with Democrats to block the implementation of relatively modest rules initiated by the Bush Administration to rein in Medicare spending.  A majority of Republicans voted both to pass a bloated Democratic farm bill and to override President Bush’s veto of it.  Most worrisome, Republicans can’t even muster enough courage to support a Republican moratorium on earmarks.

Earmark reform ought to be the easiest way for Republicans to convince voters that we’ve rediscovered our limited government principles.  Earmark proponents (in both parties) point out that earmarks represent a drop in the bucket — just half of one percent of the federal budget.  They’re absolutely right: if Republicans can’t demonstrate some fiscal responsibility on half of one percent of the budget, what hope is there that we can tackle the large entitlement programs, like Social Security and Medicare?

Congress has traditionally relied on a three-step process of authorization, appropriation, and oversight when spending money.  Federal programs are first authorized by the relevant committee, then the Appropriations Committee determines which programs receive priority given the funding limitations under the budget.  Finally, the authorizing committees and the Appropriations Committee conduct oversight through correspondence with the federal agencies, informal briefings, studies by the General Accounting Office (GAO), and through formal hearings.  Such oversight ensures that the programs and funds are being managed properly.

Unfortunately, the contemporary practice of earmarking has essentially removed two of these three steps in Congress.  We still do a lot of appropriating.  We just don’t do much authorizing on the front end and oversight on the back end.   In 1994, Congress added about 1,300 earmarks to spending bills totaling about $7.8 billion.  By the high-water mark year of 2005, the number of earmarks had risen to 14,000, totaling $27.3 billion.

Aside from the money directly wasted, which is certainly substantial, earmarks force Congress to turn a blind eye to mismanagement and waste in other areas of the budget.  It’s difficult to tell the Department of Homeland Security that it’s a waste of money to provide security for bingo halls in Kentucky (I’m not kidding here) when Congress is shelling out money for a teapot museum in North Carolina (yes, we did that, too).

When the House Appropriations Committee receives tens of thousands of earmark requests each year from Members of Congress (so many this year that the Committee’s website actually crashed from the influx of requests), it has little time to do anything but sift through and attempt to vet and prioritize these pet projects.  The Committee certainly doesn’t have the time to scrutinize the other, more substantial, non-earmarked spending in the budget.  As a result, there is a type of unspoken truce between Congress and the Administration: You don’t call us out on our wasteful spending and we’ll ignore yours.

Of course, earmarks are funded less on their merits than the seniority and station (or electoral vulnerability) of the Member of Congress making the request.

Consequently, it has become far easier for lobbyists who want a slice of federal funding for their clients to target individual Members of Congress rather than championing the merits of the project for which they seek funding.  It is no coincidence that the increased influence of lobbyists parallels the increased pace of earmarking.  There’s a good deal of hand-wringing going on these days in Congress about how we’ve achieved such abysmal approval ratings.  I think it’s pretty simple — they’re on to us.  We can’t hope to change public perceptions until we change our behavior.

Unfortunately, although the explosion in earmarks in an ugly legacy of Republicans’ time in the majority, it’s become clear that it’s a problem that Democrats don’t intend to address.  If earmark reform is going to move in Congress, it’s going to be because of Republicans.  That starts with an earmark moratorium.
If we can’t rein in one half of one percent of the federal budget, then congressional Republicans may want to get comfortable, because we’ll be in the minority for a while.


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