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Our argument against Earmarks: the infamous Line Items of Pork Barrel Politics.
March 13, 2009
Subscribers Newsletter

Earmarks migrate political power
from the people to the government.

Vic Biorseth, Friday, March 13, 2009

First, what, exactly, is an earmark? It is a very specific line item on a Bill; a Bill is a proposed law until it is passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President, when it becomes a Law. These very specific line items are quite legitimate, when and only when they refer to details of how some portion of the financing is to be spent to achieve the specific objective of the Bill. For instance, how much of the total proposed tax expenditure is to be spent on the design phase of a new aircraft carrier, and exactly how much might be spent on steel for it, and so forth. When all of these line items are specifically related to the object of the Bill, they are legitimate line items. In my terminology (not that of Congress) this is not an earmark, but just another line item.

When a line item is not related to the object of the Bill, it is an illegitimate line item, or, again in my terminology (not that of Congress) this is an earmark. To me, and to most of us, specific line items directly related to the object of the Bill are not earmarks; line items not related to the object of the Bill are earmarks, they are quite illegitimate, they are corrupt and corrupting.

Second, how, exactly, did earmarks come to be? The first time an earmark was ever attempted to be passed, it was vetoed by James Madison in 1817, with the explanation:

Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms 'common defense and general welfare' embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.

Since then, U.S. Presidents have either been not as astute, or they have been involved in the process, for earmarks have just been allowed to be very quietly slipped in and attached to completely unrelated Bills, beginning in the 1970s. The 1970 Defense Appropriations Bill passed into law with 12 completely unrelated, and therefore completely illegitimate earmarks. The 1980 Defense Bill had 62, and by 2005 it grew to 2,671. Of course, once the rest of Congress caught on, the illegitimate earmark game spread beyond Defense Bills. The 2005 Transportation Appropriations Bill passed into law with 6,371 earmarks.

Third, so what? Aren’t they necessary? At the local level, where the Federal tax money is to be spent, perhaps, but the local citizens or their representatives were never even asked. At the Federal level, where the tax money for it is collected, absolutely not. The real problem here is that each of these earmarks adds cost, meaning citizen tax dollar expenditure, to the Bill. If the objective of the earmark is something other than the objective of the Bill, it should not add any cost to the objective of the Bill. Period. It doesn’t even belong in the Bill.

It does violence to the Rule of Subsidiarity. Congressmen could never get their local constituents to vote in any of these specific earmarks and the related local tax increase on themselves to pay for them. Or, perhaps they prefer to not even try. Local projects involving local expenditures should legitimately be addressed at the local level, not at the Federal level.

These earmarks are virtually never discussed openly. They represent sneaky, underhanded politics, and purposeful deception of the public. What the hell did a brown tree snake eradication program on Guam have to do with the 2005 National Defense Bill? What the hell did a deer avoidance program in Weedsport NY have to do with the 2005 National Transportation Bill?

Fourth, earmarks represent such a small fraction of the total Bill, which is, of course, desperately needed right now, that the voters do not care about them as an issue. The terrible thing about this popular and sneaky political argument, often heard from the “professional” politicians of both Parties, is that it is largely true. The citizens are mesmerized into thinking that the money their Congressman just got for their little neighborhood is free. In fact, it is not free; it comes out of the Federal taxes that everybody pays. To the locality where the funds are spent, they got a real deal, because what they paid into the total Bill expenditure is miniscule compared to what is being spent in their local neighborhood.

Because they got a local benefit at no local tax cost, the locals think they got a real deal. But what they fail to realize is that they, too, are paying for brown tree snake eradication on the island of Guam, an item they have no interest in, either at the local or federal level. Federal money should not be spent on local issues; that’s just common sense. The local citizenry are paying their share into every single Federal Bill, and into every single State Bill, not just the one that contained their little slice of illegitimate political pork.

Fifth, it has reached the point where Congressmen are expected to bring home pork; they campaign on it; they promise it, and they deliver it. It has become a major strategy in their personal political success. They love to tick off a list of things they brought home to the locals at no local tax cost. From a face-lift of the public library, to stocking trout in the local river, to a new fire house, and on, and on. They spend a huge portion of their working hours in Congress wheeling and dealing to agree to someone else’s pet pork earmark and get others to agree to theirs.

It gets them re-elected. It makes them popular. It adds to their resume and enhances their political future. The fact that they are doing local politics at the national level is glossed over; Subsidiarity? What subsidiarity? We don’t need no stinking subsidiarity. I can get you whatever you need, Mr. Mayor, or Mr. Local Big Shot, or Mr. Lobbyist; you just come right straight to me with all your needs.

Sixth, If a higher level of government didn’t pay for it, it wouldn’t get done. Only the Federal (or State) level is big enough to solve this particular local problem. No kidding. If that is true, well then, perhaps it is not a real local problem. If the local populace is willing to pay for it, then the local populace considers it a worthwhile thing to do. If the local populace is not willing to pay for it, then, the local populace does not consider it a worthwhile thing to do. When it is deemed to be important enough, the local citizenry will express their willingness to pay for it. There is nothing difficult about this.

Who is the State or Federal Legislator or Executive to decide, behind the backs of the local citizenry, that the local citizenry has a problem that the local citizenry cannot solve for themselves? The question that should be asked here regards whose idea was this earmark, who will profit from it, and why it is not presented to the town council, or the county commission, or whomever. Why go to the Fed, or to the State? Only severe emergencies or disasters deserve highest government attention, and even then only when local remedies are overtaxed.

Seventh, the process is working, we should just leave it alone, because nobody is being hurt by it. The reasons that this notion is false are legion. To begin with, no government tax expenditures come with no strings attached. Accepting Federal a Federal hand-out invariably means accepting some Federal rules of behavior. Many, perhaps most, earmarks are not just one-time-shot earmarks, but ongoing, permanent changes in annual budgets, from now on. Federal funding of local education is an example. If you accept any Federal money, then you must religiously censor Christian exercise in your local schools.

In more ways than one, earmarks cause a migration of political and economic power from the local citizenry to the higher level of government. Eventually, the government will be doing everything, and the citizen nothing, except paying all the taxes. Any time any higher level of government “gives” you some money, someone in that higher level of government will, sooner or later, take an active interest in and begin to direct you on how to spend it, under threat of taking it back. Once the local citizenry becomes dependent upon the regular, annual earmark funds, there is a government hook in their jaw, and they are a little bit less free.

Eighth, don’t worry about it! Let’s all gather round the Pork Barrel. This is the overriding consensus opinion of Congress, including both Parties. It goes along with don’t let the cat out of the bag. They don’t want us to know how it works, and they keep a veil of secrecy around it. Earmark money, touted publicly by politicians to be miniscule in the grand scheme of things, is, collectively, huge. To paraphrase the late Senator Everett Dirksen, you know, “a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

We are talking real money here, probably the biggest contributor to the political Pork Barrel, which draws corruption like manure draws flies. Politicians skim from it, lobbyists bribe for it, special interests jump through hoops for it, contractors fight for it, kickbacks are paid from it, legal and political backs are scratched with it, at all levels of government and commerce. It’s sickening. The smaller the earmark the more likely it is to involve corruption, because the perpetrators hope no one will be interested in such a small earmark. To each individual who gets a chunk of it, it’s very large indeed.

It was our money.

How to stop it. Presidents and Governors need to scratch out the earmarks and pass the Bill without any earmarks each time they deem the Bill itself worthy of becoming Law. So long as there is nothing in the Constitution to prevent them from doing it, they should just do it. I doubt any State Constitutions prohibit such a thing; the Federal Constitution does not. If there is or comes to be such a limitation, then the whole Bill should be vetoed until it arrives on the Executive desk without any earmarks.

Opponents will argue that there are too many needed earmarks that won’t be passed if we do this. Well, no shuckin’, Sherlock. They are not supposed to be passed if the affected jurisdiction doesn’t want to pass it and pay for it at that level. Why should a Nebraska farmer have to pay for some project in Central Park New York? New Yorkers should be willing to pay for what they consider to be worthy New York needs, and Nebraskans should be willing to pay for what they consider to be worthy Nebraska needs, and they each should be willing and even anxious to leave each others taxes strictly alone.

The Rule of Subsidiarity should always be applied. The scope, reach, power, size and cost of higher government should always be reduced whenever it is possible to reduce it.

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