Monday, August 13, 2007

Earmarks are Business as Usual for Congress

Ethics Reform It Ain't

Congress has proposed a 5 cent a gallon increase in the Gasoline Tax. The idea was floated after the Minneapolis I-35W Bridge Collapse to fund more Bridge Inspections. During a Presidential Press Conference August 9th President Bush was asked:
Q Mr. President, former Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Republican Don Young, says there are about 500 bridges around the country like the one that collapsed in Minneapolis last week. And Young and other Transportation Committee members are recommending an increase in federal gasoline taxes to pay for repairs. Would you be willing to go along with an increase in gasoline taxes of five cents a gallon or more?
Congress almost always favors Raising Taxes as the way to solve all problems. Why? Because all spending measures and especially Highway and Transportation appropriations are a favorite place for "Earmarks" (Pork Barrel Spending). "Earmarks" are not discretionary funds. They can only be spent for the designated purpose. It's the same as your employer designating part of your paycheck as only spendable for McDonald's "Happy Meals" as part of your yearly food budget. The President's response, on the other hand, was an intelligent 2 part answer.
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, Secretary Peters is gathering information and will report to the White House and report to the nation about what she finds about whether there are any structural design flaws that may be applicable to other bridges. She's in the process of gathering this information now.

The American people need to know that we're working hard to find out why the bridge did what it did so that we can assure people that the bridges over which they will be traveling will be safe. That's step one.
Step two of the President's answer was the attack on the current Earmark System as practiced by both parties in Congress.
You know, it's an interesting question about how Congress spends and prioritizes highway money. My suggestion would be that they revisit the process by which they spend gasoline money in the first place.

As you probably know, the Public Works Committee is the largest committee -- one of the largest committees in the House of Representatives. From my perspective, the way it seems to have worked is that each member on that committee gets to set his or her own priority first, and then whatever is left over is spent through a funding formula. [aka "Earmark"] That's not the right way to prioritize the people's money. So before we raise taxes which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities. And if bridges are a priority, let's make sure we set that priority first and foremost before we raise taxes. [emphasis mine]
As President Regan said: "The problem is not that people are taxed too little, the problem is that government spends too much."

President Bush's answer goes to the heart of the Earmark problem. It's a method for members of Congress to accept Legal Bribes. It works like this. A member of Congress needs money to be re-elected. Therefore in exchange for Political Contributions to my re-election fund, I will "Earmark" funds in a budget appropriation measure for your company. In other words, each "Earmark" represents a member of Congress saying "I'm for sale". Since many in Congress put family members to work in their re-election campaign. Their wives, children and other family members are paid for this work out of the contributions.

When the Democrats assumed the majority position in both the House and Senate, they promised to reform the "Earmark" process. "Earmarks" are very hard to track. There is no database listing of who requests what and why. Basically there is no accountability.

Recently both the Senate and House passed "Earmark" reform as part of the Ethics Legislation. As yet they have not sent the Legislation for the President's Signature, because they are afraid of a Presidential veto, according to an Op-Ed piece in today's on-line Opinion of the Wall Street Journal (The Price is Wrong)
In a sign of just how deeply entrenched Congress's pork barrel culture has become, Democrats on Capitol Hill are delaying sending President Bush an ethics bill they've already passed that purports to reform lobbyist reporting and earmarks. The reason? They're afraid Mr. Bush will veto the bill, which makes only cosmetic changes on the earmark process, gutting the reforms Congress voted earlier this year. The White House has called what remains "worthless."
To give you an idea of the amounts of Millions of Dollars tied up in "Earmarks" the article make this statement.
Why the game of chicken? Earmarks are now a major industry on Capitol Hill, accounting, for example, for nearly 10% of the last transportation bill. As Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma points out, they also serve as a "gateway drug" used to buy votes for much bigger-ticket spending bills like the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug entitlement.
As the article points out, the practice of "Earmarks" cannot be defended on its merits. It is a form of Non-Competitive Bidding for Government (Our Taxpayer) Dollars.
Concealing just how the pork-barrel culture works is important to congressmen in both parties, because the process can't really be defended on the merits. Nothing illustrates that better than the exchange that took place just before Congress broke for its August recess between Democratic Rep. John Murtha, the overlord of spending on the House Appropriations Committee, and GOP Rep. John Campbell, a antipork reformer from California.

Mr. Campbell, a certified accountant, rose to challenge a $2 million earmark for a "paint shield" being developed by the Sherwin-Williams Co. in Cleveland. Since the actual sponsor of the earmark, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, chose not to defend her handiwork, Mr. Murtha took up the cudgel on her behalf. Mr. Campbell simply wanted to know if the Pentagon had asked for the paint shield, since the rationale for the spending was that it would "protect people against microbial threats."
Read the full article, as I can't really do it the justice it deserves. This article points to one of the reasons Congress has such a low approval rating. We can pressure Congress to change, and a Bush Veto of the "Ethics Reform" Legislation would help, because the ensuing debate will be entertaining and enlightening. The final paragraph of the article is telling.
Members of Congress like to think of themselves in pursuing the national interest in a dignified manner. Exposing how earmarks really work would make maintaining that image all the more difficult. Members would much prefer to keep the game show going and keep the details of who foots the bill hidden behind the curtain.
For more on the "Earmark" sham, Robert Novak has an article today too. (House of Corruption?)
[Republican Rep. Jeff] Flake insisted on debating the most egregious of the [Defense appropriations] bill's 1,300 earmarks placed in the Defense money bill by individual House members that authorize spending in their districts. Defending every such earmark was the chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee: Democratic Rep. John Murtha, unsmiling and unresponsive to questions posed on the House floor by Flake. [emphasis mine]
This is not a Republican/Democrat issue. It is an Ethics Issue which crosses all party lines and taints most members of Congress.
Democrats and Republicans, as always, locked arms supporting every earmark. It makes no difference that at least seven House members are under investigation by the Justice Department. A bipartisan majority insists on sending taxpayers money to companies in their districts without competitive bidding or public review. [emphasis mine]

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