Earmarks and selfish concerns

Critics of congressional “earmarking” maintain that it’s a mechanism used to haul a lot of pork-barrel spending home to the representatives’ districts.  Defenders of the practice counter with the argument that putting a stop to earmarks would place too much authority over spending in the hands of the executive. 

An amendment to eliminate earmarks was proposed for the STOCK Act, which is intended to restore public faith in Congress by cracking down on methods for using congressional power for personal enrichment.  The amendment was defeated, but the controversy surrounding earmarks continues.

The Washington Post added some fuel to the fire Monday, as it published the results of what it bills as “the first systematic effort to examine the alignment of earmarks with lawmakers’ private interests.”  Specifically, the Post discovered that some congressional earmarks have been used to fund public improvements located suspiciously close to property owned by the sponsoring representative:

A U.S. senator from Alabama directed more than $100 million in federal earmarks to renovate downtown Tuscaloosa near his own commercial office building. A congressman from Georgia secured $6.3 million in taxpayer funds to replenish the beach about 900 feet from his island vacation cottage. A representative from Michigan earmarked $486,000 to add a bike lane to a bridge within walking distance of her home.

Thirty-three members of Congress have directed more than $300 million in earmarks and other spending provisions to dozens of public projects that are next to or within about two miles of the lawmakers’ own property, according to a Washington Post investigation.

Under the ethics rules Congress has written for itself, this is both legal and undisclosed.

The Post put its discoveries into context:

Earmarks are a fraction of the federal budget, and the numbers uncovered by The Post are relatively small in the scheme of the overall Congress, but the behavior by lawmakers from both parties points to a larger issue at a time when confidence in Capitol Hill is at an all-time low.

The congressional financial disclosure system obscures certain relationships. Lawmakers are not required to disclose the addresses of their personal residences or the employment of their children and parents. The lawmakers are also allowed to put properties in holding companies without disclosing the properties’ locations. Current versions of the Stock Act would not change that. To provide a fuller portrait of congressional connections, The Post compared the financial disclosure forms with the public record to track spending on projects near legislators’ properties or on programs employing their relatives.

As the article goes on to note, there isn’t necessarily rank corruption involved in locating a public-works project close to a representative’s home.  Would it make any sense to forbid the expenditure of federal money on any project located near property owned by the local congressperson?

In a similar vein, it’s not always corruption when a federal contract goes to a company that employs relatives of a representative.  What if Congressman Bedfellow’s cousin just happens to work at the best company for the job?  Would it make sense to forbid corporations with even the slightest personal connection to Congress, or the Administration, from accepting government contracts?  Besides putting illogical limits on the pool of contractors available to the government, that would be brutally unfair to the highly-qualified relatives of elected officials (and, if we were to apply this standard vigorously enough, their high-ranking staffers) as they would suddenly find themselves about as welcome as bird flu at large corporations.

What the Post investigation highlights is the intrinsic corruption of Big Government.  As it becomes larger and more remote, the shadow of corruption falls across more of its actions, and infuses a greater portion of the overall economy.

There would be considerably less suspicion surrounding the decision to construct a particular public-works project if the funds were raised locally, and allocated by local government.  You would still have such, suspicions, of course.  The history of my own town is riddled with some epic tales of good-old-boy networking.  Your hometown probably has a few such tales as well.

But when the size, and distance, of government is elevated to the level of Congress parceling out billions of dollars, you end up with people all over the country paying for earmarked projects they have absolutely no control over, and derive no personal benefit from.  There is little chance that individual representatives will be held accountable at the ballot box for particular spending decisions.  In fact, if a voter in Colorado doesn’t like the way a representative from Tennessee is spending federal money for his own personal benefit, or to please his big contributors, the Colorado voter has no electoral recourse at all.

That sense of lost control, and electoral helplessness, probably has more to do with public distrust of Congress than representatives using earmarks to build up the airports located closest to their summer homes.  Who knows what they’re up to on Capitol Hill?  The folks in “flyover country” just know it’s costing them, and their children, a whole lot of money.