Now that Republicans have regained some of the clout they enjoyed under President Bush, what will become of talk about balanced budgets and spending reform? Will leaders model fiscal responsibility in fresh and innovative ways that broaden public support? Or will they merely try to entertain partisans while repackaging the status quo?
The issue of budgetary earmarking offers an early clue. Reports suggest that both major parties are split on this topic. On one side, leading Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are defending their power to oversee political funding for pet projects. On the other, House Republicans and the White House may be poised to ban earmarks for the coming year as a measure of fiscal discipline.
Politicians who want to keep their hands in the cookie jar like to point out that earmarking only effects a small portion of the federal budget. Nevertheless, the practice fosters government habits that undermine effectiveness and accountability. Inherent problems will resurface without action from policy-makers. Can conservatives and progressives work together to move forward?
A coalition of watchdog groups and lobbyists is advocating for the following five principals to guide earmark reform.
1. To cut the cord between earmarks and campaign contributions, Congress should limit earmarks directed to campaign contributor.
2. To eliminate any connection between legislation and campaign contributions, legislative staff should be barred from participating in fundraising activities.
3. To increase transparency, Congress should create a new database of all congressional earmarks.
4. To ensure taxpayer money has been spent appropriately, the Government Accountability Office should randomly audit earmarks.
5. To promote congressional responsibility without stifling innovation, members of Congress should certify that earmark recipients are qualified to handle the project.
While this list may not sound sexy, it offers a sensible platform for building consensus on improvements to budget policy. Progressives and conservatives often argue over spending priorities. That shouldn’t stop us from affirming the common truth that all taxpayers suffer whenever our money is squandered on political favors and boondoggles.
We should pay special attention to what happens with transportation, an area of government spending that’s notorious for politically-driven folly. Officials are prone to route money toward new projects while our existing infrastructure crumbles. This appears to be the norm regardless of the party in charge.
A truly conservative approach would prioritize transportation dollars for the repair and maintenance of existing infrastructure. To borrow an example from the Republican past, we should secure our levees before buying new bridges to nowhere. “Fix-it-first” should be our motto.
We can’t afford more tax-and-sprawl Democrats. We can’t afford more debt-and-sprawl Republicans. Need trumps greed. Take better care of what we have, and we’ll be in better shape to debate our wish-list of other programs and projects.