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  • Earmarks Are Inherently Corrupt. Congress Shouldn't Resurrect Them

    Earmarks Are Inherently Corrupt. Congress Shouldn’t Resurrect Them

    Months of headlines detailing misconduct inside Congress have apparently not been enough to shame Washington away from soliciting even more scandals.

    Congressmen resigning in disgrace for unethical and potentially criminal activity. A secretive congressional account doling out millions of dollars, with little transparency or accountability as to who is getting the money or for what purpose.

    While this sounds a lot like the recently exposed congressional hush fund used to cover-up harassment claims, it is actually a description of life in Congress in the not so distant past during the era of earmarking.

    An earmark, more commonly derided as pork, is a provision inserted into a bill or accompanying report at the request of a member of Congress that directs funds to be taken from the Treasury and given to a specific recipient, circumventing the standard merit-based and competitive procedures typically used to award federal assistance. Earmarks can, and did, financially benefit politicians, their family members, and campaign donors.

    As a member of both the House of Representatives and Senate, I have witnessed earmarking up close and know it is inherently corrupt. Earmarks were abused as a form of currency to buy and sell the votes of politicians and to reward political supporters. Convicted super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff affectionately called the earmark system “the favor factory.” Amidst criminal investigations and embarrassing headlines, public outrage forced Congress to shut down the favor factory in 2010.

    Taxpayers are not nostalgic for a return to the days of bridges to nowhere and pork barrel politics. In fact, most are angry that Congress has done little to cut wasteful spending or address our growing national debt, which now tops $20 trillion.

    But instead of tackling these, the House of Representatives is holding hearings about returning to the days when politicians could freely spend money we did not have on things we did not need that benefitted the well-connected few.

    Politicians are rationalizing earmarking as a constitutional prerogative of Congress and arguing that pork makes it easier to pass bills, while offering assurances this time will be different because the make-up of Congress is different and the process will be more transparent.

    “If there is one thing I learned during my time in Congress, it is never to underestimate the dumb things politicians will dream up to spend other people’s money on.”

    While the Constitution does state “no money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law,” those who cite this power of the purse conveniently ignore the limits placed on the role of the federal government in the same document. Even the broadest interpretation of the Constitution cannot justify earmarking taxpayer money for a teapot museum.

    It is true that quid pro quos using earmarks make it easier to pass bills, and that is exactly the problem. The so-called “Cornhusker Kickback” secured the deciding vote that allowed Obamacare to pass the Senate. Bribery should never be one of the steps in how a bill becomes a law.

    While most currently serving in Congress were not around ten years ago, the politicians who gave us some of the most outrageous earmarks, like the bridges to nowhere in Alaska and the teapot museum in Iowa, were around. Many did campaign against earmarks and wasteful spending. And while some members believe they would never earmark money for an unworthy purpose, when a member casts a vote for a bill containing earmarks for his district, he is also voting for the hundreds of earmarks for every other district without any knowledge of their purpose.

    And if there is one thing I learned during my time in Congress, it is never to underestimate the dumb things politicians will dream up to spend other people’s money on. So if members of Congress have grown weary of breaking news about the misconduct of their colleagues, they should definitely not revive the corrupting practice of earmarking.

    “I am disappointed that many within the Republican Party, which is supposed to stand for limited government and fiscal responsibility, are leading the charge to resurrect earmarks.”

    The big spenders in Congress say the billions spent on earmarks every year made up a relatively small proportion of overall spending, but that may say more about the size of the annual federal budget than anything else. Then-President Ronald Reagan vetoed a 1987 highway bill for containing 152 earmarks. Congress earmarked 11,320 pork projects costing taxpayers $32 billion in Fiscal Year 2010, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Included among these, a leading Democrat earmarked millions of dollars from the Pentagon’s budget to a campaign donor to support his pet project, which is searching for UFOs. While these amounts may seem small in Washington, billions and even millions of dollars are not pocket change anywhere else.

    A fixation on pork distracts politicians from doing the real work they were elected to do. An agreement to avoid a government shutdown when current spending expired on January 19 has not even been worked out, for example, yet the House is spending the two days prior to that deadline holding hearings on earmarks. If the process is revived, members and their staff will once again be distracted meeting with lobbyists and sifting through earmark requests.

    It is the responsibility of Congress to ensure the federal government spends every dollar wisely, and that is accomplished by conducting oversight. This requires taking the time to ask questions, and to review exactly how taxpayer money is being spent, and if the intended goals are being met. Because there is less political payoff from such work, oversight wanes as earmarking increases. With less accountability, there is more waste, fraud and abuse.

    For example, a senator who sponsored an earmark intended to help kids from low-income families in Alaska brushed off any responsibility when the money was instead used to pay for a wedding reception and other personal items. “A lot of people seem to think I should have paid more attention, etc., etc., and I tried to tell them ‘That‘s not my job,’” he said, adding “oversight is clearly an executive branch function, and we rely on them to do that.”

    It is a challenge for executive agencies to scrutinize earmarks, however, since the only direction typically given by Congress is to write a check to a particular entity with few other details. The result is less scrutiny from both branches of government.

    Ultimately earmarking is not about solving problems, but about the ability of congressmen to take credit for obtaining benefits for their constituents. There is no shortage of federal grant programs that dole out billions of dollars every year to fund almost any conceivable project that demonstrates merit, and even many that do not. But these are awarded based upon merit and competition and therefore do not allow politicians to take as much credit for bringing the bacon back home.

    Disclosing the name of each member of Congress requesting an earmark, along with the recipients, while necessary, is not enough to fix the process either. Few, if any, members of Congress read the recently passed tax reform bill or most of the other bills that are approved. How much time would it take to review thousands of pork projects stuffed into a bill before casting a vote, and how many members would actually take the time to do so?

    I am disappointed that many within the Republican Party, which is supposed to stand for limited government and fiscal responsibility, are leading the charge to resurrect earmarks. After failing to repeal and replace Obamacare and making no effort whatsoever to balance the budget last year, Washington Republicans are now moving forward with restoring earmarks for special interests and granting amnesty for illegal immigrants. These are the very same issues the Republicans were focused on the last time the party lost its majorities in Congress in 2006.

    President Trump said he has heard so much about “the great friendliness” among members of Congress who “went out to dinner at night, and they all got along, and they passed bills” during the “old earmark system.” Maybe the source of this information was referring to the notorious dinners for members of Congress and their staff hosted by the PMA Group, which closed after being raided by the FBI, and whose top lobbyist pled guilty to illegal pay-to-play schemes. Or perhaps this was a reference to the “bribe menu” listing the price to pay for pork projects that led to the conviction of a congressman and former fighter pilot who came to Congress as a hero and left as a criminal

    When the president suggested bringing back earmarks at a White House meeting this past week, the response from the lawmakers in the room was laughter. I can assure you that when the system is inevitably abused and more lawmakers end up behind bars, no one will be laughing.

    Tom Coburn, M.D., represented Oklahoma in the United States Senate from 2005 to 2015 and in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001.

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