Ever since there has been a Congress, our national legislators have been directing federal dollars to their states and districts. They believe the spending helps the local economy —to say nothing of their re-election prospects. The longstanding practice has become so abusive, however, that some politicians are declaring themselves opposed to it. Their reforms vary from duplicitous to sincere, but sadly they all are only cosmetic.
The extent of abuse is best demonstrated in defense bills. In the 2006 Department of Defense Appropriations Act, now law, Congress added $9.3 billion in spending for items like a Memorial Day celebration, Hawaiian Islands health care, Alaskan fisheries, breast cancer research, and much more. The Congressional Research Service found 2,847 of these “earmarks”—or “pork” by less euphemistic language.
Eagerly advertised to the voters back home as good news, the many sponsoring congressional Democrats and Republicans neglect to explain that they raided other parts of the defense budget to pay for the pork. Their favorite “bill payer” is the Pentagon’s Operation and Maintenance budget, which includes spending for weapons maintenance, training, fuel, and all the other essentials for fighting a war.
No one in Congress has done anything about it. The Senate’s self-proclaimed “pork buster,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has given speech after speech listing pork in defense bills, but he has barely lifted a finger to take real parliamentary action. In an institution specifically designed to enable a minority, even of just one, to bring the whole body to gridlock unless he or she is accommodated, McCain has decided, instead, to appease the Senate’s most voracious porkers. These include fellow Republican Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Stevens’ Democratic sidekick on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. McCain performs his role as pork enabler by giving his routinely brief “pork buster” speech and then simply sitting down or leaving the Senate chamber altogether.
Typically, there are two responses: The press swoons and lauds McCain as some sort of maverick, and the Senate proceeds to lard up defense bills with even more pork than was marbled in before McCain’s remarks.
More recently, the dual scandals involving Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif. (now doing time in federal prison for felonious behavior involving pork he added to defense bills), and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, (now also in jail for working the system from the other end), have prompted Congress into a halting self-reform.
The changes under consideration address “earmarks” by requiring—except for the loopholes—that pork be more transparent. The theory is that exposing the congressional authors of earmarks and describing the spending will put a restraint on abuse. This baloney will do nothing of the sort.
If public exposure of pork could embarrass Congress out of its current abuse, the profligacy would have ended a long time ago. Since the mid-1990s, McCain has been giving his speeches identifying, even lampooning, thousands of outrageous examples in defense bills. The result? Congress increased the pork in those same bills from $4.2 billion in 1994 to the $9.3 billion in 2006.
In fact, Congress’ porkers think advertising their handiwork is an excellent idea. Virtually every member of Congress whips his or her staff into beehives of activity issuing press releases to make sure the voters back home know all about it. For example, for the 2006 DOD appropriations bill, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., issued no less than eight press releases to every corner of her state broadcasting the good news. Thus, attempting to shame the shameless is an unproductive enterprise.
Any serious proposal to reform congressional pork barreling would include the following:
A description of the item and the need for it, if any, not by anyone in Congress, but by an objective entity, such as the Government Accountability Office. An estimate of the past, present, and future cost of the idea, again not from the advocates but from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. Most importantly, every earmark Congress endorses should be awarded federal money only after a nation-wide competition to find the best contractor for it. If the idea is any good, why award it to an enterprise pre-selected by a politician rather than by the open market? Few, if any, in Congress will like these ideas. They need a stalwart advocate: specifically, a member that would use the parliamentary devices at his or her disposal to frustrate business as usual unless real reforms are adopted.
There might be such an individual in Congress. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has already shown a willingness to obstruct the Senate’s pork system with unwanted amendments to remove some of the most outrageous items and to ask surly questions about what is in spending bills.
A newcomer to the Senate, Coburn has not yet actually used most of the tools at his disposal in the Senate, and he has used up some important energy advocating the ultimately ineffective idea of requiring just some illumination of pork projects. He has not yet realized his potential to be the Senate’s first real “pork buster.” So Coburn needs some encouragement.
In the classic Frank Capra movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the hero challenges a corrupt Senate by using one of the parliamentary devices Senate rules allow—the filibuster. He prevails, but only after realizing that going along with business as usual is no solution. Perhaps, we should all send Coburn copies of Capra’s movie."
This commentary was originally published by the Independent Institute on August 23, 2006.