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Why Congress Cannot Operate Without The Bribing Power Of Earmarks

It seemed like a great victory at the time.

After years of federal taxpayer dollars being misappropriated to pay for pet projects in the districts of congressmen and senators looking to curry political favor with the voters back home, a moratorium was passed in 2011 ending the Congressional pork parade known as “earmarking”.

It appeared to make sense. Federal taxpayers had grown sick and tired of paying the bill for something like the construction and renovation of a botanical garden project in Brooklyn, New York when such a project, obviously, had nothing to do with core federal objectives, serving only to improve the re-election prospects of the Congresswoman who brought the money home to Brooklyn—along with the few Americans who spend their Saturday’s enjoying a picnic in the greatly improved botanical gardens at your expense and mine.

While the concept of earmarking—at the outset—had merit in that it compensated for the inability of the executive branch, who proposes the federal budget, to fully understand what might be rightfully required to achieve federal objectives in a state far away from the nation’s capital, earmarking quickly devolved into a system of vote-buying where a Member of Congress, reluctant to cast a vote for a particular piece of legislation, could be ‘persuaded’ to do so if enough pork was piled onto that Member’s plate in the effort to satisfy an important constituency at home.

Let’s face it—at a point, almost any elected official’s objection to a bill or judicial appointment will crumble when offered enough goodies to ensure endless re-election to office because the elected official is bringing home the bacon to the voters who hold his or her fate in their collective hands.

So, when the Senate and the House of Representatives agreed to end the earmarking process a few years ago, it certainly appeared to be a positive step in the direction of gaining a little control over wasteful government spending and a move towards bringing a bit of honestly to the process of government.

But what actually happened?

For starters, if you believe we have done away with the concept of earmarking money for special projects back home—thing again. The earmark moratorium has brought forward an even more insidious process called “lettermarking” where Congressional slush funds are created as tools for funding pet projects without even the limited accountability and public information that came with earmarking. While earmarks required publication of a pork project—along with the amount of taxpayer money being spent and identification of the elected official proposing the earmark—lettermarking allows for such expenditures without any identification of the project, sum and sponsoring legislator whatsoever.

Additionally, we now find that when an elected official is unsuccessful in convincing an agency of the executive branch to contribute money to a pet project, that official often turns to blackmailing the agency involved by threatening to cast a vote to deny some Administration objective. This is precisely what occurred when Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) threatened to block Obama administration appointments unless money was provided for a harbor dredging project in his home state.

But something even more insidious has followed the ban on earmarking—

Without the persuasive powers of the political ‘carrot’, congressional leaders and the President no longer have the ‘stick’ required to move Congress to getanything of significance accomplished.

The moratorium on earmarks went into existence in February 2011. Since that time we have seen some of the greatest legislative fails in the history of the nation, highlighted by the debt ceiling fiasco of 2011, the inability to pass a jobs bill, an ever-increasing vacancy rate in the federal judiciary as one nominee after another is shelved and, of course, the current fiscal cliff clunker that might be the most embarrassing and damaging display of congressional incompetence of all.

One cannot help but wonder if our current inability to legislate our way out of a paper bag might be different were party leaders and the President to, once again, be free to avail themselves of the one thing that could always win the hearts and minds of elected officials who care, first and foremost, for their own jobs—a healthy and legal bribe.

If the fiscal cliff fiasco has taught us anything, it is that our elected officials no longer even pretend to place the needs of the nation ahead of their own—to quote Mel Brooks—phony baloney jobs. Does anyone imagine that it is a coincidence that Speaker John Boehner has disappeared into the background in the final days of the fiscal cliff debate so as to avoid another misstep that might cost him the Speakership? Does anyone doubt that Boehner’s inability to deliver his own caucus’ support for his ill-conceived “Plan B” is the direct result of special interest groups—such as Club For Growth—whose political contributions are the life-blood that flows into the treasure chests of the more extreme elements of Boehner’s GOP caucus and remain the only carrot of any value when it comes to winning the affections of Congressional Members ?

Indeed, the only politician involved in this game of political chicken who appears to have a reason to actually put the public before politics would be the President—not because he is above playing the game, but because he no longer has to run for political office.

Accordingly, as we head into the new Congress and the expiration of the earmark moratorium, should we not be questioning whether the ban on earmarks has delivered the results that were intended? If Congress has already found a way around the ban—and is doing so by using a process that is even less transparent than what we previously had in place—maybe we would be better off simply accepting that our government only works when legalized, congressional bribery is allowed to more easily enter into the equation.

Cynical? Absolutely.

But how is it any more cynical than a political system that welcomes the bribery offered up by special interests in the guise of huge and often unlimited campaign contributions that benefit incumbents in exchange for their vote—particularly if the cost of earmarks to the taxpayer is far less than the cost to taxpayers when our legislators refuse to act, despite knowing that their inaction will cost our economy, and therefore our taxpayers, even more money?

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the cost of earmarks to taxpayers in 2010 totaled $15.9 billion dollars—a drop in the bucket when compared to the economic losses resulting from the failure of Congress to act rationally during the 2011 debt ceiling drama or what we stand to suffer if government cannot find a little courage as we hang over the edge of the fiscal cliff.

Accordingly, while returning to earmarks may mean a return to wasteful spending of taxpayer money on projects that bring no benefit to the nation as a whole, it could also mean saving even more money than is wasted by avoiding the financial setbacks that come with endless debt ceiling debacles and fiscal cliff fumbles.

Until we decide to completely remove the systematic rigging of elections to favor incumbents—which is precisely what earmarks seek to do as does the unlimited money that flows to incumbents from the myriad of special interests who call the shots in Washington—we may as well give in and allow the system to, at the least, function.

Conversely, if you are offended and troubled by earmarks—and you should be—you should be equally offended and troubled by the special interest groups that have taken their place. When incumbents cannot gain an advantage over challengers by bringing home the pork, they will go for the next best thing—enough campaign cash to allow them to outspend their challengers at election time.

To get rid of one without getting rid of the other makes no sense. At least earmarks produce legislation that might protect and create jobs for taxpayers while unlimited campaign money produces only jobs for elected officials themselves.

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