Washington Matters


Why Voters Hate Congress

Mark Willen

Forget health care for a moment. The argument over earmarks illustrates everything that's wrong with our broken political system.



The deficit is probably the biggest long-term problem facing the United States. There may be good arguments for delaying action until the economy is stronger, but if we delay more than a year or so, the spiraling deficit and soaring debt will quickly threaten our economic and national security. Tackling the problem will require political courage. A lot of it. And there is exactly none now. We’re going to have to cut government spending – including on the Medicare and Social Security entitlement programs – and we’re going to have to raise taxes. As Knight Kiplinger pointed out on this site recently, there is simply no way to cut enough spending on nonentitlement programs to produce the needed savings.

Most members of Congress, of course, won’t tell you this. They’re afraid you’re too selfish or too weak to face the truth, and they’re afraid you’ll punish them at the polls if they treat you as an adult. They can’t even agree on passing the buck to a bipartisan debt commission with real power to propose a solution. Republicans insist they’ll do that only if tax hikes are ruled out ahead of time, which just can’t be done.

So instead of a debate over how to get where we need to go, we’re treated to still another ridiculous argument over earmarks – the provisions inserted into appropriations bills that require spending for specific projects, often to specific companies. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) made earmarks a big issue during the presidential campaign, and now they’re back.

Let’s start by conceding that many earmarks are a waste of money. Not much, mind you. Only 1% of discretionary spending (about 0.25% of the total federal budget) is earmarked, so cutting all of it out won’t solve our problem, but every little bit helps. And no doubt, there are plenty of bad earmarks. This is how we get things like the bridge to nowhere or a $600 million grant for studying the reproductive habits of black and yellow squirrels that live in oak trees in Hawaii (yes, I made that one up). Too many of these are payoffs to members who sit on the Appropriations committees or campaign contributors or well-placed lobbyists. Not all earmarks are bad, and you can make a case that the members of Congress have the constitutional duty to decide how to spend taxpayer money – rather than the unelected bureaucrats who run our agencies -- but you can also make a pretty strong case that too often, members of Congress have abused their power.

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A sensible solution would call for a far more restrictive earmark policy, with plenty of transparency and debate so that members have to justify each earmark, not slip them into a bill unnoticed an hour before the vote. In fact, we’ve moved closer to that kind of policy, but we’re not there yet. Even so, the new debate over earmarks won’t help.

This latest chapter began when Democrats in the House Appropriations Committee announced they would no longer approve earmarks to profit-making companies but only to local governments, universities or other nonprofits. Republicans one-upped them by adopting a one-year halt on all earmarks.

This silly push for the high ground is disingenuous to say the least. The Democratic plan makes no sense because often the nonprofits that get earmarks just subcontract the work to profit-making firms (some are even created specifically for that purpose). And the Republicans don’t have much to lose by proposing a complete moratorium because as the party out of power, they don’t get that many earmarks anyway (which is why it’s a one-year plan – you can bet it won’t be renewed if the GOP is running the show next year).

The House plan makes even less sense when you factor in the Senate, which won’t impose a similar moratorium. Senators insist their more “deliberative approach” means there’s more time to consider and debate earmarks, and besides, says Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI), deciding how to spend money is what he’s paid to do. You could add that members don’t stand in line for decades to become chairman of an appropriations subcommittee to give away the power and perks they think they’ve earned.

This means that if the House goes through with its plan, it will have simply handed more power to the Senate, where all the earmarks will be chosen. So no money will be saved, and House members will have shot themselves in the foot just for the sake of bragging rights.

It’s all a lot of hot air for nothing – another way to avoid confronting what really matters. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, only 17% of voters approve of the way Congress is doing its job. It only makes you wonder what’s wrong with those 17%.




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