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November 18, 2010

Earmarks Bribe Us with Our Own Money

"The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money." – Quote often attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville.

Earmarks are only about one-half of one percent of the federal budget. Nevertheless, eliminating them will be a huge step towards good government. Earmarks are the bribes incumbents pay us from our tax dollars to get re-elected; earmarks are the bribes that appropriation committee members use to line up votes for really big spending projects. Earmarks are an excuse for legislators to avoid dealing with big national issues on a national scale. This isn't a partisan issue; it's all about good government. As both President Obama and the tea partiers say, earmarks are wrong, and ought to be eliminated. It looks like there is a chance that will happen; we need to keep the heat on our legislators to make sure.

Unfortunately, there are unlikely to be any votes from the Vermont congressional delegation opposing earmarks; we have to count on the rest of the country to save us from ourselves.

Unilateral disarmament with respect to earmarks is hard. Some national legislators, John McCain is one, simply don't ask for earmarks. But you could argue that his constituents are then penalized because they have to pay for earmarks to other states while not competing for their fair share. The solution is everybody gives up getting earmarks at once and everyone is then relieved of having to pay for them. The money that doesn't get appropriated doesn't have to get raised as taxes (or financed as debt) and can be spent (or saved) by us.

Perhaps the greatest harm that earmarks do is provide a reason to vote for incumbents over and over again regardless of their effectiveness as national legislators. The more seniority a senator or representative has, the more pork he or she can bring home and the greater the pool of people who are grateful for what they received. I often hear "this was done with Senator Leahy's money." That does not mean that the Senator made a personal contribution; it does mean that Leahy (D-VT), who is one of the longest serving members of the Senate and did not have a serious fight for reelection this year, managed to get an earmark for some of our money (or some of your money) to be spent on a particular program in Vermont.

A sample story from the Senator's website: "Leahy Secures $65,000 For Guilford Country Store". The reopening of the historic Guilford Country Store is a good thing but it's not a federal issue. Surely the Senate has more pressing issues to deal with.

In the days when Vermonters used to elect republicans to the national legislature, they were just as avid in securing earmarks and just as skilled at using them to help achieve reelection. This isn't a partisan issue.

The greatest budget danger from earmarks is that they are used as payoffs to legislators to get them to vote for really big spending bills. Members of the appropriations committees control the flow of earmarks. A bridge here, a downtown renewal there, a "research" contract to a local institution can all be used to round up votes for a bloated defense, healthcare, or ethanol-subsidy bill. It's these bills, greased down the skids by earmarks, that fuel the growth of government and deficits.

Feeling steam from the tea kettle, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell reversed his opposition to an earmark ban and Senate Republicans voted for a ban Tuesday; today House Republicans did the same. Strong support from the President could assure that the ban is put in force and enforced. This actually would be change we can believe in; ironic but welcome that it could come about because of agreement between the Tea Party and President Obama.

Related posts:

Cutting the Deficit – Just Do It!

The Deficit Reduction Draft Proposal is the Stimulus Program We Need!

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