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The problem with earmarks

Submitted by Pat on Thu, 06/21/2007 - 2:58pm

Kudos to Sen. Obama for releasing a list of earmarks he is seeking for his state. At first glance, the list looks fairly typical; I imagine most Senators and Representatives have lists of similar state and local projects they want to spend federal tax dollars on.

There are three fundamental problems with earmarks like this. First, of course, is the waste of federal money on purely local projects. Second is the haphazard spending of these funds. Decisions on spending are made based on the political might of particular members of Congress, not on the basis of true national priorities. How many miles of border protection could be purchased with the $750,000 Sen. Obama wants to spend on water towers for Aledo, Illinois?

Third, and for me the biggest problem, is the corrupt atmosphere this breeds, and the utter domination of Congress it gives to the powerful members of the appropriations committees. Incumbent congressmen often win reelection based on "bringing home the bacon." To do that, they need to play nice to members of the appropriators. Thus, on any given issue, they are very likely to be highly attuned to the desires of the appropriators. Voters have pretty short memories. Politicians tend to have long ones. Between campaign contributions from "leadership PACs" and control over the earmarks appropriations process, the Congressional leadership can rather easily reward compliant congressmen and punish those who refuse to toe the party line.

Transparency should only be the first step.

Pat, that is all nice and

Pat, that is all nice and good, but what is there that can be done about it?

I think transparency may be as good as we can get. As you said, incumbents win on "bringing home the bacon." If they don't do it, someone else will run and say that they will do it. Unless we can elect 200 Reps who will vote to reform the appropriation system and neuter the committee at the same time, I have trouble seeing any new representative who runs on reform being able to survive on the Hill. Sure, you will have your idealists who won't give in. Those are few and far between. Considering the current turnover rate, I suspect that most idealists will have it whipped out of them or be voted out by his/her constituents long before the critical mass of representatives are ever met.

Senators have more flexibility to play the game. However the structure of the House as it is right now, does not lend to radical changes in the appropriation process without an almost impossible turnover rate. Transparency can allow for a little pressure to be applied. I am just at a loss to see feasible second step in the process.

How many miles of border

How many miles of border protection could be purchased with the $750,000 Sen. Obama wants to spend on water towers for Aledo, Illinois?

And more to the point, what exactly do water towers in Aledo, Illinois - fifteen miles from the nearest state border and comfortably twenty miles from the nearest interstate highway - have to do with interstate commerce, or any other enumerated power of Congress?

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