Change We Can Believe In…


Evan Bayh, D-Indiana writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, makes the following points:

This week, the United States Senate will vote on a spending package to fund the federal government for the remainder of this fiscal year. The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 is a sprawling, $410 billion compilation of nine spending measures that lacks the slightest hint of austerity from the federal government or the recipients of its largess.

The Senate should reject this bill. If we do not, President Barack Obama should veto it.

The omnibus increases discretionary spending by 8% over last fiscal year’s levels, dwarfing the rate of inflation across a broad swath of issues including agriculture, financial services, foreign relations, energy and water programs, and legislative branch operations. Such increases might be appropriate for a nation flush with cash or unconcerned with fiscal prudence, but America is neither.

Drafted last year, the bill did not pass due to Congress’s long-standing budgetary dysfunction and the frustrating delays it yields in our appropriations work. Since then, economic and fiscal circumstances have changed dramatically, which is why the Senate should go back to the drawing board. The economic downturn requires new policies, not more of the same.

This is quite a different response from the words of Rahm Emanuel, who dismissively observed on national television:

"That’s last year’s business".

Proving, I guess, that Emanuel bows to the gods of politics instead of the gods of common sense, the long view, national self-interest, or even the god of preservation.

If this story is any indication, maybe the enormity of the economic problems is beginning to sink into some reaches of the democratic party. From the San Francisco Gate, buried in a story about the effect of earmarks on the local scene, is this brief paragraph:

Some Democrats are beginning to call for more reform to make sure that earmarks aren’t used to reward friends or campaign contributors.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, joined 19 other mostly conservative House Democrats to vote against the spending bill last week because of her concerns. She did not request any projects in the bill, but agreed to carry over requests made by her predecessor, San Mateo Rep. Tom Lantos, who died in February 2008.

"For all the talk of reform, Congress continues to pass spending bills loaded with earmarks without enough time to fully examine where the money is going," she said after the vote.

Speier is now trying a novel experiment: She’s put together a citizen’s oversight panel to recommend projects for federal funding, chaired by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, a critic of earmarks, and including local elected, business and labor leaders. If the model works, she may offer legislation to expand it nationally.

"I love it," Keith Ashdown, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, said of Speier’s plan. "I want to see more details, but it means lawmakers are not chasing dollars because their campaign contributors are interested in (an earmark.) It’s all transparent. It’s a great idea."

What Speier is proposing is certainly a move in the right direction, i.e., an open process, with input from the citizenry, that removes the odor of venality from the current process. But, in a larger sense, her suggestions are nothing more than an attempt to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

Objectively, I understand the concept of earmarks. Wikipedia provides more detail:

Congressional earmarks are often defined loosely as anonymously authored guarantees of federal funds to particular recipients in appropriations-related documents.

The federal Office of Management and Budget defines earmarks as funds provided by Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents Executive Branch merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to manage critical aspects of the funds allocation process. (emph. mine)

Attempts have been made to define earmarks in ethics and budget reform legislation. However, due to the controversial nature of earmarks and the effects these definitions would have on Congressional power, none of these has been widely accepted.

Despite the lack of a consensus definition, the one used most widely was developed by the Congressional Research Service, the public policy research arm of the U.S. Congress:

"Provisions associated with legislation (appropriations or general legislation) that specify certain congressional spending priorities or in revenue bills that apply to a very limited number of individuals or entities. Earmarks may appear in either the legislative text or report language (committee reports accompanying reported bills and joint explanatory statement accompanying a conference report)."[2]

In the United States legislative appropriations process, Congress is required, by the limits specified under Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution, to pass legislation directing all appropriations of money drawn from the U.S. Treasury. This provides Congress with the power to earmark funds it appropriates to be spent on specific named projects. The earmarking process has become a regular part of the process of allocating funds within the Federal government.

Earmarking differs from the broader appropriations process, defined in the Constitution, in which Congress grants a yearly lump sum of money to a Federal agency. These monies are allocated by the agency according to its legal authority and internal budgeting process. With an earmark, Congress has given itself the ability to direct a specified amount of money from an agency’s budget to be spent on a particular project, without the Members of the Congress having to identify themselves or the project. (emph. mine)

A history of earmarks informs that the process suborns the intent of the Constitution, that it is a recent development, and its growth in terms of spendig and absolute numbers has been exponential over the last 40 years. Sourcewatch provides perspective:

While many lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have proclaimed that earmarking has been common since the founding of America, recent research has indicated otherwise.

The idea of directing federal money to specific local projects originally came from Rep. John Calhoun (D-S.C.) when he proposed the Bonus Bill of 1817 to construct highways linking the East and South of the United States to its Western frontier. At the time, these projects were referred to as "internal improvements." Calhoun wanted to use the earnings bonus from the Second Bank of the United States specifically for this program, arguing that the General Welfare and Post Roads clauses of the US Constitution called for it. President James Madison vetoed the bill as unconstitutional. He explained his reasoning in the following message:

Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms ‘common defense and general welfare’ embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust. (emph. mine)

Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent watchdog organization, has argued that widespread earmarking is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics. The organization cites the evolution of earmarks since the 1970s. The 1970 Defense Appropriations Bill had a dozen earmarks; the 1980 bill had 62; and by 2005, the defense bill included 2,671. Among the earmarks in the 2005 bill was money to eradicate brown tree snakes in Guam. [2]

Similar increases are seen in the history of the Transportation Appropriations Bill. When President Dwight Eisenhower proposed the first national highway bill in the 1950s, there were two projects singled out for specific funding. In August 2005, when Congress passed a six year, $286.4 billion Transportation Bill, there were 6,371 earmarks, ranging from $200,000 for a deer avoidance system in Weedsport, New York to $3 million for dust control mitigation on Arkansas’ rural roads. [3]

In all, there were roughly 15,000 congressional earmarks in 2005 at a total cost of $47 billion

There is a lot of fingerpointing in Washington, and a lot of blame placing. Disregard for the moment the immaturity of that behavior, and focus on the notion that the body politic of this country has, from both sides of the aisle, gorged themselves at the trough of the national treasury. And we, the citizens, have happily grabbed our own small piece of the pie with quiet satisfaction.

Having supported our elected officials through this process over the last forty years, how can we expect the current crop of appropriators to act any differently?

Friends, it is time for real change that has to come from the ballot box.


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