The junior Republican Senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, is causing a bit of consternation within that august body because of his unremitting attacks against the pernicious process of earmarking.
Earmarking – also called pork barrelling – is the tacking on of a monetary allocation for a particular legislators pet project to a major appropriations bill. That’s how we got the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska that I posted about a while back.
Many people often wonder how legislators can, in good conscience, add these superfluous spending bills to major legislation that is almost sure to pass. It would seem to a reasonable person that anyone would understand that if enough of these earmarks are added, the whole edifice would tumble. But that’s not the way it works. These folks are basically buying votes just like you and I buy books and clothes and cars and other stuff. If we look at it that way, it’s easy to see how legislators fall prey to the lure of earmarks.
Imagine that you are one of a group of 100 people and that you are given a VISA card. You can use the VISA card as often as you want, but the whole group pays the bill at the end of the month. Now if you use your own VISA card for purchases, then the bill comes due at the end of the month, and you have to pay it. The amount of money you can afford to pay sets your spending limit. Not so if your part of the group of 100. Your strategy changes. Since the whole group splits the bill equally at the end of the month, your share is only one one hundredth of the total bill. In essence you are getting to pay off your purchases (votes if you are a legislator) for one cent on the dollar. Your best strategy then becomes to spend as much as you can so that you can pay for it with cheaper dollars.
Of course all the members of the group of 100 (carefully selected to mirror the number of senators) have that same strategy and so when the end of the month comes the bill is huge and unaffordable by any individual. But the strategy stays the same, if you spend more than anyone else, you get to pay for your spending at a discount. Since everyone knows that, spending runs amok. Is it any wonder that the federal budget is out of control?
Tom Coburn is trying to do something about it and is catching a lot of flak from his fellow senators from both parties.
As he points out in his editorial in Friday’s Wall Street Journal:
The most vocal opponents to a zero-tolerance approach toward pork are, sadly, the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, to his credit, has issued only a mild defense of earmarking by stating we should “mend, not end” the practice. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Denny Hastert, on the other hand, have been enthusiastic in their defense of pork. Sen. Reid offered a fictional account of American history when he said the pork process “has been going on since we were a country.” He and other pork apologists ignore the reality that pork as we know it today didn’t exist 20 years ago. In 1987, President Reagan vetoed a spending bill because it contained 121 earmarks. The number of earmarks has skyrocketed over the past decade, from 4,126 in 1994 to 15,268 in 2005, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Nowhere in our founding documents is a justification for today’s out-of-control earmarking. In fact, Madison and the other framers were clear that the general welfare clause of the Constitution should never be construed as a blank check for Congress. Pork is a modern indulgence, not an ancient or noble tradition.
Speaker Hastert, for his part, has said pork is “what members do” and that members are best positioned to know where to put a “red light in their district.” This vision of an imperial Congress, where urban planners in state and local governments can be usurped by individual congressman and their 20-something staffers, is unsettling. And every hour members spend on parochial obsessions is an hour they can’t devote to oversight, balancing the budget or serious national security issues.
Unless we want the federal budget to zoom totally out of control we all should get behind Dr. Coburn’s (he is a practicing physician) efforts to eliminate earmarks. I know based on comments I’ve received that readers of this blog span the political spectrum from the far right to the far left. I’ve figured a way to rationalize helping Dr. Coburn that will set well with everyone’s spirits.
If you are a far right Republican, you can go for these efforts because, after all, the right wing wants limited government and limited spending. If you are far left, you’ve got to be cognizant of the fact that Republicans control both houses of congress (and are likely to do so for some time), so most of the pork barrel projects being cut are those used to buy Republican votes.
See, we can all agree on something politically.