A lot of news and commentary these days revolves around “earmarks,” a political practice that affects us all, but may not be understood by all. Wikipedia offers this definition: “In United States politics, an earmark is a legislative (especially congressional) provision that directs approved funds to be spent on specific projects, or that directs specific exemptions from taxes or mandated fees.”
Earmarks aren’t always bad, but so many are that they deserve their growing nasty reputation.
Your federal taxes and mine flow into the U. S. Treasury, and then Congress dives in and spends the money – all of it and more. The senators and representatives of your state and mine compete for all that money.
The pie is only so big, so they try to get more of it than their state put into it. If the budget was balanced exactly, the pie would be smaller than total tax revenue because it costs a lot to run the IRS (now hiring 16,000 new employees), and the treasury and related activities.
However the pie is bigger than it should be because Congress currently borrows one trillion dollars a year. That added trillion – even with its enormous interest—makes it possible for most states to come out ahead of the game... The bigger pie enables legislators to invent all kinds of spending schemes. Otherwise it would be less than a zero-sum game.
From time to time one political party gains control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. Suddenly the game gets much more brutal, regardless of which party dominates. Now the states that voted for the dominant party get amply rewarded with projects and exemptions and favors galore. The minority states get zilch. Their taxpayers get to pay for the pork dished out to the politically privileged.
But there’s more dirty work afoot. Earmarks often become bribes, payment in exchange for a crucial vote.
Remember the “health care” vote? Senator Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana, and Nebraska Senator, Ben Nelson, were unwilling to support the bill because of its costly impact on states.
In effect they demanded special rules and exemptions for their respective states. They got what they asked for, later dubbed the “Louisiana Purchase” and the “Nebraska Kickback.” Also, Connecticut got an extra $100 million project for its cooperation.
California also evidently rates among the privileged elite. The state borrows $40 million a day from the federal government to provide assistance to jobless workers, but refuses to change its benefit formulas.
The rest of us are forced to keep pumping truckloads of money into California simply to feed its insatiable spending addiction.
While earmarks don’t amount to much of a percentage of the total budget, eliminating them would put a stop to the political bribery and corruption that they engender.
It would become a lot harder to buy a vote or reward states that don’t deserve it. It might even promote legitimate, needed spending projects in the public interest.
Roads and bridges do need to be built. Some stateside military bases need expansion; some may need to be closed. Somehow Congress must be weaned from basing such decisions on political calculations.
Earmarks deployed as political bonuses undermine the impartial administration of justice. In the straight no-nonsense language of another age, “A wicked man receives a bribe . . . to pervert the ways of justice.” Such earmarks are a form of stealing—taking not only the money of citizens but depriving their individual right of equal standing and equal treatment under the law.
A jaded novelist once wrote, “The American way is to seduce a man by bribery and make a prostitute of him. Or else to ignore him, starve him into submission and make a hack of him.” Sadly that diagnosis has often proven correct in Washington. To the incoming Congress falls the duty and honor to overthrow it by getting rid of earmarks.
Gary Hardaway, a regular contributor to the Amy Internet Syndicate, directs Summit School of Ministry in Bellingham, WA.
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