The Problem with Earmarks

How Congressional earmarks for good causes are reaping bad results.

An earmark is a line-item tacked on to a federal spending bill that designates money for a special interest. Since Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, earmarks have exploded as the favorite tool for rewarding campaign contributors, getting pork for one’s district, and feathering a member’s own nest.

In 1986, for example, only six earmarks totaling $74 million were included in the NASA budget. In 2006, members added 198 items totaling $568.5 million. In 2005, Republicans in Congress indulged in an orgy of spending, with up to 15,000 earmarks totaling $47 billion. Included among the favored projects was the infamous $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere,” connecting an Alaskan town of 8,900 to an island with 50 inhabitants.

When money is so easy to come by, a lot of people will be eager to make their grab, members of Congress not excluded. One Republican member is now in jail. The Justice Department isn’t saying how many others are under investigation, but various media reports indicate more than twenty.

Earmarks are generally anonymous. They are not requested by the president. They circumvent the normal appropriations process. They benefit a select few who have hired the right lobbyist or made the right connection.

They are often for good causes. And therein lies the rub.

DallasCEO examined the Dallas-area earmarks contained in the Health and Human Services Appropriation bill now pending before Congress. We then called members of the local delegation to see who would own up to slipping the pork item into the bill. In most cases, they were proud to lay claim. And why not? Part of their job is to bring home the bacon.

So when Fort Worth Republican Kay Granger sticks in $2.3 million for Cook Children’s Medical Center, who is going to argue the kids don’t need it? Or when several local representatives manage to get line-items for UT Southwestern totaling $1 million, who’s going to do anything but applaud? I’m sure the American Foundation for the Blind will be forever grateful to Republican Pete Sessions for its $250,000, as will the patrons of SMU for its $100,000. Democrat Chet Edwards, who is in a tight race for re-election, was positively ebullient about the $700,000 he got for the Glen Rose Medical Center.

However, as the saying goes, good cases make bad law. So do good causes.

Under a seemingly complacent President Bush, Congress has gone on a binge. Spending has increased by a massive 28.8 percemt since 2001—with non-defense discretionary spending of 35.7 percent, the highest rate of spending growth in three decades. We are now burdened by the largest budget deficits in U.S. history, an estimated $520 billion in fiscal year 2004 alone. Uninhibited by any threats of a presidential veto, Congress has spent with wild abandon, abandoning its own rules and ignoring its own procedures.

There was a strategy behind all this, fashioned by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. It was to out-Democrat the Democrats by doing anything possible to insure a Republican majority. The Republicans would no longer be the party that insisted on a balanced budget, on constraint, on fiscal responsibility—those are all downers. Instead, it would spend itself to popularity. It would buy the votes necessary to win, no matter what the cost.

Those good causes our dedicated representatives in Congress have worked to serve—sick children, medical research, hearing centers—come at a heavy price.

Corruption is one thing. It’s easy to be against corruption. Wasteful spending is another thing. It’s easy to be against bridges to nowhere. But when the same practices that produce graft and waste bring home welcome dollars for good causes, then who is willing to stand up against it?

Our members of Congress know who butters their bread. The crushing federal debt, the drag of deficit spending on the economy, the easy scams by lobbyists and special interests—that’s for someone else to deal with, not them.

Multiply that attitude across the country, and it’s not hard to see why the richest nation on earth is in deep financial trouble.

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments