Reform, don't ban, earmarks
I was talking to a Republican mayor of a fairly large city in the southern part of the United States, and the subject of earmarks came up. He was a big fan. “It is a lot easier for me to get the attention of my local congressman than it is to get the attention of a bureaucrat here in Washington.”
And that is the fundamental conundrum of the Republican attack on the earmarking process.
Lots of Republicans not only love earmarks, they rely on earmarks to get the attention of an indifferent and sometimes hostile bureaucracy.
Getting rid of earmarks is not only impractical; it gives way too much power to the executive branch.
Earmarks are a small, but essential, price to pay to protect democracy and our form of representative government.
Our nation’s founders bestowed upon Congress the power of the purse as a reaction to the absolute power of King George and his fellow monarchs. But what good is the power of the purse without the right to actually direct some of the spending of the president.
Undoubtedly, Congress has abused their power to spend the people’s money, and unfortunately, corruption has become all too commonplace.
But the reaction to this corruption should not be the wholesale abdication of power to an all-powerful executive.
Rather, Congress should reform its spending ways to rebuild the taxpayer’s trust in the process.
First, it should insist on transparency. Last-minute deals to add special little projects, all to buy votes, should be prohibited.
Second, it should insist that the committee of jurisdiction authorize all appropriated projects. The authorization process should be revitalized to give each and every spending request the scrutiny it deserves.
Third, no member should be given the power to be able to both authorize and appropriate spending projects. The temptation is simply too great when members have that much power to spend taxpayers dollars.
Fourth, the Congress should use an outside accrediting agency (perhaps GAO or the CBO) to give a seal of approval that the spending requests are in the national interest, and not just in the parochial or private interest of the requesting member.
Of course, earmarking is not something that happens only with the Appropriations Committee. The Transportation Committee (because of the unique way it spends money from its various trust funds) and the Ways and Means Committee (tax provisions) also have been known to compel the bureaucracy to do things it might not normally do.
All of that is completely appropriate when it is done in the national interest. It is completely inappropriate when done at the behest and for the private benefit of a special interest.
That the earmarking process needs reform is obvious. But reforming earmarks will not suddenly make Congress fiscally responsible. In fact, as has often been mentioned before, earmarks made up only a tiny percentage of total spending in the budget. And the Congress can take out every earmark, dedicate those savings to deficit reduction, and still not make even a minor dent in the huge budget problems that face the nation.
But that doesn’t mean that reform of the earmark process is unimportant. The people have lost faith in the Congress because it has spent like a drunken sailor for far too long, on projects – like the infamous Bridge to Nowhere – that don’t pass the laugh test. If Congress can come up with a process on earmarks that can help restore faith in the institution, by insisting on transparency, on a vigorous authorization process, on a dispersal of power, and on outside accreditation for all spending, it will be in a better position to tackle the truly big spending issue of the next 30 years, the dangerous growth of entitlement spending.
Republicans like John McCain and John Boehner are right to shine a spotlight on the broken congressional spending system. But the answer is to fix that system, not give all the power to spend to President Obama.
A lot of Republican mayors, county executives and governors don’t want to just rely on the good graces of an Obama administration, no matter how much they might like the president. They are relying on congressional Republicans to help with their spending requests. It is neither good politics nor good policy to ignore those requests and give all the power to the executive branch to do with the money as they see fit.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.