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Earmarks And The Debate Over Federal Spending

October 14, 2008 - John Whittaker

One spring day in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was sitting at his desk in Washington, D.C., reviewing a funding request for a sewer project in Dunkirk, N.Y.

While Kennedy never set foot in Dunkirk, it is in the state he represented in the U.S. Senate, so he was expected to be able to make a decision whether or not the federal government should invest in a sewer project there.

According to Theodore White's book, Making of a President: 1968, that application from Dunkirk, and dozens of other places like it, is one of the factors that drove Kennedy to run for the Democratic Party's nomination for president.

A few months later, Kennedy was dead -- struck down by an assassin's bullet while running for president.

I share this story with you because earmark spending is getting a lot of press during the 2008 presidential campaign. During Tuesday's Town Hall debate, John McCain pledged, again, to reform the earmark, or pork spending, process. When Congress passed the $700 billion economic stimulus package last week, lawmakers were sure to add earmark projects into the bill, infuriating McCain and countless "good government" groups across the country.

Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, among the most vociferous critics of the bill, said it included tax breaks for rum, NASCAR, television and the manufacturer of wooden arrows for children.

"The pork doesn't belong in this bill. This is a financial rescue package," he said in an Associated Press story.

Legislation to keep the government running earlier this fall included 2,322 pet projects sought by lawmakers for their home districts and states, at a cost of $6.6 billion, according to the Associated Press. It also included billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees for the auto industry, and allowed a moratorium on offshore oil drilling to expire. McCain skipped the vote on the bill, but was asked about it later on ABC's This Week.

"I certainly would have done everything in my power to remove those earmarks," McCain said in the Associated Press story. "But I may have voted for it if, I probably would have ended up voting for it, but I decry a system where individual members are, are faced with taking all this unacceptable, outrageous stuff that has contributed to the largest growth in spending since the Great Society."

Squealing From The Feeling

It adds billions to the federal budget each year -- making pork spending a favorite of government reform groups and politicians who want to get elected, you know, people like McCain, who has said he will veto each and every pork project that crosses his desk if he's elected president, reclaiming billions, he says, that can be used for defense or entitlement spending as the economy continues to lose steam.

Want to know the funny thing about pork spending? It's not just a Washington problem. Sure, Senators and House representatives fight amongst themselves for their share of the pork pie, tying up good legislation until they can get their pet piggy projects funding before throwing daggers at their counterparts across the aisle for fattening up legislation like a hog being led to the slaughterhouse.

The public cries about pork spending, but the public is a big part of the problem. Where do you think the spending requests come from? If a Senator visits a particular city/county/region once in 10 years, is the Senator to blame for securing federal funding for projects? That request came from some politician or official or volunteer at the local level, who got that request from some well-meaning volunteer who wants to build a new park for their town's children to play in, or wants an addition to a museum to preserve local history, or maybe even wants to add on to a new building for veterans.

Town, village, city and county politicians see it as getting their piece of the federal pie -- getting the money their taxpayers put into the system. Federal lawmakers see it as a way to remain elected and make their constituents happy.

Here's what we actually know about pork projects:

1. Most of the projects are worthwhile at some level, and probably couldn't proceed without the federal money. Just look at the Erie-Lackawanna Train Station renovation project in Jamestown. One state's pork is another state's economic development tool.

2. There is entirely too little regulation possible for pork projects at the federal level. It's common sense that Charles Schumer or Hillary Clinton can't possibly oversee spending on a project like the train station. In addition to having bigger fish to fry in Washington, think of the sheer number of those projects happening throughout New York state.

3. All those pork projects add up to real money. You, Mr. And Mrs. American Taxpayer, spend billions on pork projects each year. The problem is, the average taxpayer sees little benefit from the rest of the country's pork projects. While Jamestown residents might use the train station once the work is done, what chance does Joe Schmoe from California have of recouping his tax dollars from the project? Indeed, pork is spending in someone else's district, not mine.

4. Earmarks can open up the doors of Congress to lobbyists pushing for a myriad of projects -- and lead to scandal like the Jack Abramoff scandal a couple of years ago.

5. It's incredibly difficult to get legislation passed without pork because lawmakers use pork projects as sweetener to get bills passed that the opposition party doesn't like. The bailout bill probably wouldn't have had as much Republican support had the pork projects not been included, for example. Eliminating pork projects will mean having to go through each spending bill, which sometimes can be thousands of pages long, line by line to find and veto the projects. Sounds like a job I'd want!

6. For some projects, that cost will end up being put on the backs of local taxpayers -- which would force people to justify if a project is actually necessary, or would just be a "nice." Cutting spending is a good idea in this time of ever-expanding municipal and school budgets, especially when a paycheck doesn't buy what it used to.

What I Think

I'll be honest, I'm a Democrat (I know, half my readership just fainted from shock). But, spending has to get cut somewhere - and it might as well start from the top of the political ladder. I don't know if, right now, we as a country need to be spending billions a year on pork projects when there are more important things we need to be spending out money on.

Poor people will have trouble heating their homes this year. Gas prices have gone down in the last month, but it still costs three times what it did 10 years ago to fill up your car. The stock market needs some positive reinforcement. People are losing their retirement nest eggs.

One of the reasons the stock market hasn't rebounded already is there is a lack of confidence in the way our country does things -- partisan bullhonkey, spending money on crap projects, easy-to-satire political figures. Is there any wonder consumer confidence is down in the dumps?

This is a scary time, and, while I differ with a lot of things McCain says and does, cutting spending scratches one of my presidential itches. It's a message that needs to make its way to state and county spending, too.


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