Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to Bruce & Jolene McCaw Family Foundation and John Sheller some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

A few kind words for earmarks

Congress is damned if (as in earmarks) it directs where the money goes , and berated if (as in the new stimulus package) it doesn't. Sober up, government bashers!
Click to enlarge. (Wikipedia)

Click to enlarge. (Wikipedia) None

I have seen the place where the bridge to nowhere was supposed to go. I asked my friend, who lives in Ketchikan, about it.

“Do you want to see a fight in here?” he asked inside a store in downtown Ketchikan. “I could start one pretty easily with that.”

Earmarks — provisions of the federal budget for specific projects — get our knickers in a twist because one man’s manure is another man’s ice cream. The bridge to nowhere, still often described as a connection to a sparsely populated island, would have connected Ketchikan with its — airport. It now requires a ferry ride to get there. In a town you can only get to by plane or boat, that’s a big deal. Imagine if you had to take the ferry to Vashon to get to the airport. You’d be clamoring for a bridge. (And before you ask why they put the airport on an island, understand that Ketchikan is surrounded by steep hills. Flat land – any land – is at a premium.)

So it’s bemusing to hear people now complain that the federal stimulus package has little congressional mandate as to how it will be spent. Well, that’s in part because there are no earmarks in the bill.

Earmarks were in fact less than 1 percent of the federal budget in 2008. Congress could use a germaneness rule, so that amendments to bills, including earmarks, have to relate to the original bill. That would prevent some shenanigans. But even though a lot of earmarks get through Congress, it’s difficult to argue that earmarks are what has driven up the federal deficit.

The complaining about lack of congressional oversight in the stimulus package underscores the absurdity of the post-modern America polity: We brag about our freedom, democracy, and superior form of government, and yet relatively few Americans have any faith in it or understand how it works. (And if we’re the greatest nation on earth, why do we have to keep telling everybody?)

My own students will frequently say they know nothing about government and pay little attention to it, but they know that most people in government are corrupt. How they know this is never made clear. My response often is, if so many government officials were truly on the take, they’d dress better.

Some of this automatic distrust stems from nearly 40 years of candidates campaigning against government, a gift of politics in general and the Republicans in particular. For far too long, the typical campaign rhetoric has been “government is the problem; elect me and I’ll destroy government.” The first part is yelled; the second part barely whispered.

You heard it loud and clear from the right throughout the 2008 campaign — the system is broken. Exactly how it’s broken, nobody really says, but apparently we’re going to hell on a hot rail unless we elect a bunch of people who hate government to somehow want to fix it. That’s like saying we could fix education if we hired a bunch of people who hate school.

Anyhow, back to the earmarks business. The assumption now is that Congress, which is apparently less corrupt than the people below them, needs to be watching every move by the state and local officials who will spend the stimulus dollars since, without extreme oversight, locals will no doubt spend the money on junkets, jelly beans, and support for the underground gay communist devil-worshipping conspiracy. These critics often are, of course, the same people who say the federal government is too powerful and more power should be given to the states because they are closer to the people and know what they want. Except, apparently, when it comes to stimulus money.

Oversight is one of the most important jobs Congress does, and one of the least sexy, so you don’t hear much about it. The lack of earmarks or anything like them won’t stop congressional committees from seeing what happened to the money, and at least raising a ruckus if there is waste.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Mon, Feb 9, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Adding an earmark to an unrelated bill in order to gain a vote is corruption.

Accusing someone of harrasment for asking a government worker to behave responsibly in all matters is corruption.

Perhaps your students are ignorant punks?

Then, again, perhaps it is you and your abusive drug buddy drinking pals that aren't fit to supervise anyone or anything....

The price of failure is failure, same for everybody, anything else is,
as I said before, corruption.

Posted Mon, Feb 9, 10:24 a.m. Inappropriate

You heard it loud and clear from the right throughout the 2008 campaign — the system is broken. Exactly how it’s broken, nobody really says, but apparently we’re going to hell on a hot rail unless we elect a bunch of people who hate government to somehow want to fix it. That’s like saying we could fix education if we hired a bunch of people who hate school.

I think it's more like saying we could fix education if we hired a bunch of people who hate the current state of the school system, which doesn't sound nearly as absurd. True minarchists probably aren't running for office, or if they are, don't think they have a chance of getting in. Call me crazy but when I hear "I hate (the) government" I hear "I hate the way the government is currently run."

By the way, love the Columbia River watershed map, but not entirely sure what it's meant to illustrate — unless it's to call out some of the federal projects in the Pacific Northwest, lest we think we're paying into the Treasury and not getting anything in return?

Posted Mon, Feb 9, 2:32 p.m. Inappropriate

My major problem with earmarks is that you have people from one part of the country subsidizing the pet projects of people from other parts of the country.

If I recall correctly, a big part of the sculpture park in Seattle was funded with an earmark attributable to one of Washington's senators.

Why should people from Mississippi and Maine pay for that sculpture park if they don't ever visit Seattle? Why should I pay for a similar earmark in Maine and Mississippi?

Why is the federal government at all involved in this stuff? One can debate whether it is the proper role of any government, but certainly the Founders intended for the federal government to have no role at all in local expenditures like this.

PJS

Posted Mon, Feb 9, 4:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Well.. the same question could be asked about why people from Westport should have to pay for things in Colville and vice versa, though, no?

Posted Tue, Feb 10, 5:14 a.m. Inappropriate

While some people would prefer that the federal government not spend any money on things they don't value, federal spending will proceed in Congress.

Earmarks means members of Congress decide what the money is spent on. Grants mean the political appointees within the Administration decide after asking key members of Congress.

Games are played either way. Every now and then someone really screws up and does something underhanded and corrupt via either method. It's a great country.

Jan

Posted Tue, Feb 10, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr Lukoff -

One can make the argument, but we live in a federal republic, based on states, as opposed to cities, counties, etc.

The Founders did not intend for the federal government to have the role it has assumed. My opposition to earmarks is largely based on a desire to have the federal government scaled back toward the role contemplated by the Founders. Fundamendally, the citizens of Washington state are better situated, and should decide, how to spend taxpayer dollars within Washington state.

PJS

Posted Fri, Feb 13, 12:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Speculating on the intent of the Founders is rather problematic. First, the evidence is fairly clear that James Madison, chief architect of the Constitution, intended it be purposefully vague so that we would be forced to reinterpret it on a regular basis. Second, the Founding fathers also believed that women, people of color, and anyone who didn't own real property should not be allowed to vote. So I don't think they were eternally brilliant. Finally, the one thing the Founding Fathers all have in common is that they are now dead -- gone, taking a dirt nap, bought an underground condo. Why, precisely, we should allow a bunch of people who have been dead for 200 years decide what we should do now is beyond me. I think the wisdom of the founders is substantial and always worth reference. But it needn't be the last word on every political problem of the day. An extraordinarily minimalist approach to government no longer works, and no amount of reading Ayn Rand will change that.

T.M. Sell

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »