Everyone Loses in the Earmark Game
By Senator John Cornyn Posted in Anti-Pork | Congress | Earmarks | John Cornyn — Comments (23) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Many of my colleagues profess to be bewildered by the extremely low poll ratings being generated by the current U.S. Congress. They hear that the public is not happy with the way Washington operates, but they don’t believe they need to do anything about that -- as if all that unhappiness was somebody else’s problem, and not their own.
I’m not so sure. I believe the public discontent can be accurately sourced, and Congressional earmarking process has become a symbol for wasteful and undisciplined federal spending. Earlier this month, I joined a bipartisan group calling for a one year moratorium on all earmarks. That effort failed. We missed a major opportunity to show we are serious about tightening our Congressional belts during a difficult economic period.
A study by Taxpayers for Common Sense recently noted that “Congress disclosed 11,234 earmarks worth $14.8 billion in this year’s spending bills.” It noted an “additional $3.5 billion worth of earmarks were added with no sponsor identified,” making a grand total of $18.3 billion in Congressional earmarks this year. Yes, that number was reduced slightly from the previous year, but many of my constituents are hardly impressed.
As the Taxpayers for Common Sense study states: “Much of the public outcry about earmarks results from concern that earmarks are part of the pay-to-play culture in Washington, where taxpayer money is diverted to reward campaign contributors, lobbyists, and political cronies with pet projects.” The earmark process is subject to harsh criticism indeed – that it’s riddled with secrecy, corruption and wasteful spending. While I believe that representatives elected by the people, rather than government bureaucrats, should have the ability to direct these funds, the system we have now is broken, and it’s not being fixed.
The public’s skepticism about earmarking is well documented. The Congress didn’t employ an organized earmark process until the 1980s. By 1994, earmarking was so out of hand that Republicans included an earmark cutback in the Contract with America. But after a brief period of fasting, Republicans began opening the gates again, and public confidence in their Congress resumed its current downward trend.
Since taking over in 2006, Democrats have shown no appetite for forgoing pork. In fact, we heard last week that the computer system in a House committee was so overloaded with earmark requests from various Members that it broke down under the strain. We clearly have not learned our lessons.
Of course, Congress has funded a number of worthy projects via earmarks. Limited reforms last year have shed some light on the process, forcing lawmakers to affirm they receive no financial gain from their earmarks. But as one of my colleagues put it, the system is not merely a case of a few bad apples in a barrel. One state getting $600 per capita in earmarks, and a dozen others getting $25 a person or less is more political than equitable.
A few states, especially those with senior members on appropriations committees, are doing very well under the current system. But most states are being shortchanged. Whenever taxpayer money is sent to Washington for bureaucratic handling and then dispersed via a largely opaque process, democracy is not being well served.
Even a one-year moratorium on earmarking was too great a sacrifice for the political class in Washington this month. We could have used that time to regroup and put in place a process for local expenditures that is fair, transparent, and defensible to the public. We missed that opportunity, and it will not be surprising if the public continues to object to our inaction.