Elimination of Earmarks

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Political Reforms

If the biggest problem we face is money going into the political system, then the second biggest problem has to be the money coming out of it. Those two trends could almost offset each other, except for one thing: The money going in goes to politicians and their parties. The money coming out comes from our tax dollars — and the waste of our tax dollars makes it impossible for government to do many of the things it should be doing.

Originally published 2004

The Problem

As Senator John McCain has pointed out, the practice of earmarking is responsible for most of that waste. This is where money flows the other way, from government back into a representative’s district, where it helps to ensure their reelection.

An earmark is a rider that is attached to a bill after it has been voted on by Congress, when it’s on its way to the President for signing. So no one ever debates the value of the earmark. And it doesn’t even get a thumbs up or down based on its own merits.

You can see the potential for trouble in that system. Congress votes to send body armor to our troops. The President has to sign that. So Legislator X tacks on a rider that sends a couple of million dollars to his district to make the park prettier. Legislator Y adds a 10 million more for to build a monument to his state flower — in his district, of course. And on and on.

The bill collects a hundred million dollars in riders that earmark funds for specific pork-barrel projects, and what is the President supposed to do? Veto the bill that sends body armor to the troops? How can the President do that? (Actually, a President with balls would. They’d veto everything automatically until this cynical, craven practice stopped. But a President who can’t even read the bills is obviously incapable of vetoing them.

When the earmarking was limited creating jobs, that was one thing. It was expensive and wasteful, but there was some value in it, as well. A politician earmarked funds that put as many people as possible to work, and society derived some benefit, at least.

But now, massive amounts of earmarked money are flowing into giant conglomerate corporations. Some percentage of that goes to jobs, sure. But a big percentage goes into corporate advertising, so they can tell everyone how good and honest they are, and other things.

Note: Have you seen all the ads by SUV-producing car companies telling us how much they care about the environment? Where was that concern for the last 30 years? Nowhere in evidence, as they maximized their profits with the biggest gas-guzzlers they could sell, with the highest possible profit margins. It doesn’t have anything to do with earmarking, but it burns me how often they do that. Another example is the corporations that tell us how much they “care”, so there are no trans fats in their foods — now that trans fats have to be labeled — after making money hand over fist by pumping their foods full of trans fat laden hydrogenated oils.

So here the corporations are, raking in massive amounts of cash. But it gets worse! Much of that cash is pumped back into the political system! In short, those corporations have been pumping the cash cow in a cycle that has been the American taxpayer billions. Worse, it saddles our children and grandchildren with a bill that mortgages their future.

Our country has been borrowing so heavily that it is virtually owned by the Chinese and other foreign interests. Where has that money been going? To giant corporations, by way of earmarks.

Possible Solutions

The “line item veto” has been proposed as a possible solution. Depending on how it works, it could be helpful. If it means simply that the bill and its riders are separate line items, it could be helpful. But when I hear “line item”, I think of an accounting spreadsheet that shows all of the funds allocated for a particular project, and where they are going to be spent.

With that second definition, a President could reach in and decimate a bill that Congress enacted. A President could leave the bill intact in principle, while at the same time emasculating it of any capacity to achieve its goals.

If the first definition is what is actually meant by “line item veto”, then the proponents of that bill need a new term for the concept. But in either case, the question is whether the powers that benefit from the arrangement will allow it to be changed any time soon.

Of course, the problem simply goes away with proportional representation. In that system, there are no geographic districts, so district-level earmarks don’t exist. That just leaves state-level issues. But at that level, things tend to be debated on the floor of Congress, rather than tacked on as a rider.

However we do it, eliminating earmarks is a good idea, if and when we can do it. But it will be difficult to achieve that goal within the current system. For that, the best bet is to go outside the current system — which brings us to the trust network for voting advice, the last topic in this paper, and possibly the last hope for a thoughtful democracy that isn’t dominated by corporate money.

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