Congress Violates Own Earmark Law by Allowing Pork-Barrel Politics

By YeOldeScribe ~ May 28th, 2011 @ 8:12 pm

Political Progressives is all about fighting corruption in all its many forms. That’s why we couldn’t have been happier when the House decided to ban earmarks for the next two years last November. The Senate was asked to do the same, but the measure was defeated when Democrats wouldn’t budge on giving up their right to spend government money however they please. Ironically enough, it was the Tea Party-led Republicans in both the House and the Senate that pushed the measure while Democrats across the board rejected it.

For those not in the know, earmarks are “guarantees of federal expenditures to particular recipients in appropriations-related documents.” Essentially what this means is that if a bill is passing through Congress about Clean Air and my district was home to automobile factories, I could attempt to attach an earmark to the legislation providing funds to the specific auto plant in my district as long as they went to producing cars with lower emissions. This doesn’t seem like too bad a thing, right? But it is. We’ll get to that later.

The interesting thing about this ban is that it didn’t even last a single year before it was already violated.

CNN recently uncovered a secret government slush fund in – where else – the defense budget. From this multi-billion dollar fund, members of Congress (at least the high-ranking ones) could pull monies for projects specifically for their districts with no strings attached.  Some of our favorite examples included spending $19 million for “Navy ship preliminary design and feasibility studies” (note that the $19,000,000 isn’t for actually building ships, just designing them and determining if those designs are useful) and more than $30 million for a “corrosion prevention program.” (We can solve this dilemma on our own: don’t drive behind a salt truck in the middle of winter. Problem Solved. Can we please have our $30 million now?)

So today we’re going to tell you why earmarks are bad, and why politicians are being hypocritical (shocking, we know) on this issue.

First of all, the entire process of earmarks is based in corruption. You’ll notice that most first-term Representatives and Senators don’t get to make earmarks – that’s because rarely do they sit on the right committees. See, to earmark something, you have to be sitting on a committee that has a budget with a decent size. The best places to get monies from are on the Appropriations committees  – which is how it’s determined which branches will get what monies – or high-ranking committees like the Ways and Means committee in the House or the Armed Services committee in the Senate. Needless to say, the natural resources or Indian affairs committees aren’t places to siphon off cash for your district. So this is a case of the rich getting richer – not only do politicians who have been in Washington for so long that they probably couldn’t identify their district on a map to save their life get the best seats on the best committees, doing so allows them to get even more monies for their districts that would instead go to the programs they’re supposed to go to.

Second, earmarks are all done behind closed doors and are very hush-hush. Earmarks rarely make the news because they’re buried deep within thousands of pages of fine print in bills that no one actually reads (including the politicians themselves, we might add). They’re hidden from the public on purpose – because if the public ever found out how the government was spending their money, they’d be pissed. It’s absolute robbery of our hard-earned tax dollars. The most famous earmark is the “bridge to nowhere”, which former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin supported, then didn’t support, then kind of supported, then she got confused about it and stopped caring. But don’t be fooled – there are thousands of examples of bad earmark programs that the public as a whole doesn’t know about because there isn’t enough time to find every earmark and decry it. For a government that’s supposed to be transparent and representative of its people, we don’t see why it should be allowed to hide its record books, especially when the monies discussed come mostly from tax revenue.

Finally, earmarks are just another way of saying pork barrel politics. We had to chuckle at the Wikipedia entry for earmarks because it tries to argue that they’re not the same. In other words, it could have only been written by a politician. The definition of pork barrel politics is “funding for government programs whose economic or service benefits are concentrated in a particular area but whose costs are spread among all taxpayers.” In essence, earmarks are just a nicer way of calling something pork. It’s bad for democracy and bad for legitimate government. Sure, it’s good for business – as long as you have a member of Congress on the Budget or Appropriations committees. However, if your Senator is chairing up the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry… good luck.

So why are the Republicans so hypocritical about this? Well, it comes down to the simple fact that nothing makes a politician more corrupt than power and elections. Let’s explain. Power is a dangerous thing – it’s like a drug, really. The more you have it, the more of it you want. Eventually you start to think you need it; that you’re entitled to it and that you wouldn’t be able to live without it. And that’s exactly what congressional committees are all about – power grabs. Every single member of Congress is trying to move on up the pecking order so they can be put on (and eventually chair) the “better” committees. To hell if your district contains a lot of Native Americans – no one wants to sit on that committee. It’s like the time-out chair of politics.

Second, earmarks are great for re-election campaigns. You know how members of Congress will always come back to their constituents when election fever begins to sweep our nation and they remind us of the contracts they secured to bring in jobs or the money they got us to build a new community center? Those are usually all earmarks. It’s an easy way for people who are in politics to remain there. They can say “look what I did for you, my people,” and the people reward them with another term. But that doesn’t make the process correct.

Taking a look at the cases given in the link provided, the hypocrisy is incredible. Make no mistake about it – these projects are earmarks from the word go – they’re just called something else. Based on our post from yesterday, you should know how we feel about politicians who try to dress up wolves in sheep’s clothing (hint: we like that about as much as we like earmarks). The article talks about how it’s a strange coincidence that for all of the programs listed, the Representatives who backed them have places in there districts where the money would go. For example, for that $30 million for studying corrosion? That request was made by Betty Sutton, a Republican from Ohio. Her district just so happens to be home to the University of Akron, which is the first institution in US history to offer a bachelor’s program in corrosive engineering.

Again, looking at this on face, it’s not a bad thing – so the money is going to a school that will help solve a $15 billion dollar problem for the government. Why is this so bad? Because the earmarked money is extra spending – wasteful spending. See, there was already $10 appropriated for spending to fight corrosion, and that money was to be distributed throughout the US. The $30 million would only go to Sutton’s district and would have no oversight, unlike the already-appropriated money. That’s why it’s bad.

We guess if you favor the government to spend your tax dollars however it wants to based on who’s in charge and who’s been in Congress the longest with no oversight and accountability, then you’re probably all for earmarks. If you’d like your tax rates to go up and funding for necessary but somewhat unpopular programs like the National Clean Water/Clean Air Acts to be slashed so tens of people can get from one Alaskan island to another, then earmarks are awesome.

If, however, you want fiscal responsibility and rational, ethical governmental accounting, then earmarks are probably not a good idea. But really, that debate is moot.

The important thing here is that Republicans campaigned and won a lot of seats in Congress because they swore off wasteful spending and said that they had given up earmarks for good. But like a junkie that just needs one more fix, the temptation of power proved too much for the men and women of Congress to resist once again, and has turned an entire party into hypocritical liars and frauds.

But hey, it was a good try.

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