A Contrarian View on Earmarks

GOP senators are planning an internal vote this week on a moratorium proposed by DeMint that would ban Republicans from passing earmarks. DeMint’s moratorium, even if it passes, will be a symbolic gesture at best. It would be a nonbinding Senate Republican Conference rule, meaning GOP senators could sidestep the rule to insert earmarks into budget appropriation bills. The Denver Post recently reported

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, along with other Senate leaders from both parties, say that earmarking is a constitutional right and senatorial privilege and show little interest in relinquishing the decades-long practice of inserting pet projects into appropriations bills.

Among the eight incumbent senators who had signed on to the Senate Republican earmark freeze by Wednesday evening, only two of them have requested no such targeted funds since 2008 – DeMint and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
The other ban backers have sought varying amounts of earmarks:

  • Richard Burr of North Carolina, $32.3 million.
  • Jeff Sessions of Alabama, $24.2 million.
  • John Cornyn of Texas, $21.9 million.
  • Mike Enzi of Wyoming, $21.8 million.
  • John Ensign of Nevada, $12.4 million.
  • Bob Corker of Tennessee, $10.3 million.

Whatever the outcome of the vote on this nonbinding Senate Republican Conference rule, it will have absolutely no effect on how well I sleep at night. If it passes some Senators like Burr, Cornyn, and Corker can thump their chests for being “true conservatives”. Really? I will look at everything you do, and then I’ll decide how conservative you are.

If one wants to become more informed about earmarks visit the Citizens Against Government Waste website. Here is a pdf file I find very informative. I was surprised to read in the conclusions an admission by the writer of this report of the need to earmark in rare cases. This is what it says about earmarks…

The terms “pork” and “earmarks” are often used interchangeably, but they are different. The term “earmark” generally means any expenditure for a specific purpose that is tucked into a larger bill. Only when the earmark is inappropriately added to the bill is it considered pork.

McConnell is not incorrect in saying earmarking has always been a process for US Senators. In the 18th Century the first Congress rejected an earmark to a bill to loan money to a glass manufacturer after several members challenged the constitutionality of the proposal. In the 19th Century President Cleveland became known as the “king of the veto” for rejecting hundreds of congressional spending bills during his two terms as President. He often wrote: “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution.” The term “pork-barreling” was coined in the late 19th century to compare the rush toward a pile of tax dollars to the way slaves would crowd around barrels of salted pork at meal times.

Ideally, a member of Congress would have two avenues for getting funding for a favored project: encourage the beneficiary to submit a grant request to the relevant agency; or, go on the record and argue for funding before an authorizing committee. In this way, congressional hearings add transparency and accountability to the budget process. As a result of the authorizing committees not doing their job and the breakdown of enforcement mechanisms, almost all earmarks today are currently funded at the behest of individual
members of the Appropriations Committees.

It was not until Sen Byrd became the Senate Majority Leader in 1977 that earmarks grew in number, size, and scope. Before Byrd Congress would fund general grant programs and let federal and state agencies select individual recipients through a competitive process or formula. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees named specific projects only when they had been vetted and approved by authorizing committees. Members of Congress with local concerns would lobby the president and federal agencies for consideration. The process was aimed at preventing abuse and allocating resources on the basis of merit and need. After Byrd Appropriations Committee members arbitrarily picked winners and losers by earmarking funds for specific recipients. Rank and file members, backed by an army of lobbyists, bypassed authorizing committees and lobbied the appropriators directly for pet projects.

So in summary, this is my contrarian take to the earmark process. I do not object to the earmark process as it was employed in the US Senate before the Robert Byrd era. As US Senators working on behalf of the interests of their home State, a Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, and Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina should have both the Senators helping them get open hearings and approval by authorizing committees for their needs. The Appropriation Committee members must stop arbitrarily picking winners and losers themselves, and rely on the vetting process for earmarks performed by the authorizing committees for the appropriations bills they vote out of their committee. If the House and Senate need to go to a joint conference because of differences in their bills, then the conferees should not be allowed to add any earmarks to the joint resolution.

In the final analysis there are no perfect non-binding Senate rules that will provide a conservative Utopia. The best check on congressional waste and excess will always be public vigilance. The public showed their vigilance with their votes November 2, 2010 to throw the bums out. All the bums were not thrown out, but a message by the voters was delivered. Some of you may disagree with me about earmarks. I disagree with those who believe an earmark process has always been an evil process. America may not be Utopia, but I have always been a proud American.

Cross-posted at The Minority Report