Friday, June 6, 2008

Why most congressional earmarking reforms just won't work

Years ago, when I was handling media relations for Citizens Against Government Waste, it was believed that if you shined a bright enough light on the practice of congressional earmarking, and you shamed members of Congress who conducted these personal raids on the U.S. Treasury, you could help clean-up the budget mess. That belief was rather naïve, I now realize.

The theory falls apart because you can’t shame the shameless. And that’s why the vaunted earmark reforms we’ve been hearing and reading about, at least since the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal increased public awareness of the issue, will fail to deliver significant results. Though beneficial, the new disclosure rules being debated by the House and Senate won’t do much good because members, masterful spinners that they are, have succeeded in turning fiscal vice into political virtue. Nothing will change until the American people begin to see the issue clearly and consistently – and until they stop serving as accomplices.

I keep seeing media references to the “public outrage” earmarks supposedly evoke. Where is it? The most notorious pork-barrel practitioners in Congress are routinely and reflexively re-elected (it’s that longevity, in fact, that’s given them a front row seat at the trough). Most are lionized by their constituents for their ability to “bring home the bacon.” I used to read the newspaper clips that came in after our annual release of the Pig Book, a report designed to shame politicians and educate the public. Far from outrage, most of the home state reaction could be summed up as follows: “If this is pork, we want another heaping helping!”

I began to recognize that many Americans were indignant about the obviously-parochial, arguably-idiotic pet projects landed by other members of Congress, but saw similar projects scored by their own Congressperson as legitimate federal expenditures, not to mention just desserts. The report provoked rationalizing en masse. I never saw a member of Congress pay any political price for pigging out.

Back then, a few members of Congress bristled at being called out as porkers. But as years went by, I sensed that some members actually relished the Pig Book’s release, understanding that they and their constituents could take a certain pride in their pork barrel tally, since it served as one tangible measure of political clout. The sanguine editorial reactions, along with the willingness of constituents to justify their own representative’s raid on the Treasury, removed whatever stigma once attached to pork-barrel plundering. And it became a perverse point of pride. Until this changes, little else will.

Here’s my thumbnail reaction to the “reforms” being debated by Congress.

One provision in the House bill “requires any bill containing earmarks be accompanied by a list identifying each one and the member or members who requested it,” according to the AP. I just explained why that’s ineffectual. Creating such a list merely reduces the work load for Congressional press secretaries, who are spared the need to crank out the customary press releases bragging about how their bosses “brought home” this or that federal spending project.

Another provision requires the member who requests an earmark “to provide a letter identifying the earmark and the entity to receive the funds, along with a certification that neither the requesting member nor their spouse would benefit financially,” report the AP. Disclosure of financial conflicts could be useful, only if serious, perhaps even criminal sanctions result from failing to disclose. Referring such matters to the ethics committee will not serve as a deterrent. The most corrupt members of Congress may seek some direct financial gain from earmarks, but most are content to reap the real but far less visible rewards, including the gratitude of voters and patronage ties such projects generate. That's critical to the incumbency protection racket. Lining their pockets is less important to most members than remaining a lifetime member of this prestigious club. There's plenty of opportunity for cashing-in after retirement.

Another rule change would prohibit earmarks “from being used to influence other members,” according to the AP. But policing this would be nearly impossible. The congressional pecking order is obvious enough to most insiders, and so much of the institution’s business transpires behind closed doors, that overt acts of intimidation (or pork-barrel bribery) are rarely evident. Junior members don’t have to be told what might happen if they cross senior members -- who also happen to control appropriations committees. Catching one member in the act of influencing another, using earmarks as leverage, isn’t as easy as it sounds in an institution where influencing colleagues is a legitimate part of the game. And without adequate enforcement mechanisms, this won’t have much impact.

The only reform worthy of the name -- a proposed moratorium on earmarks until a bipartisan committee proposes new rules changes -- fell along the wayside late last week, regrettably. This isn’t the solution, of course, since the study committee, if it simply mirrors Congress at large, is likely to produce recommendations just as anemic as those critiqued here. But a moratorium, if it stuck, would at least grant taxpayers a temporary reprieve. And if the committee’s work, staying true to congressional form, took one, two or three years to complete, that would save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars in unnecessary, frivolous and wasteful government spending.

Given how endemic earmarking has become, and how hard it will be to change that as long as average Americans remain complicit in the corruption, even a temporary timeout is probably the best we can hope for.

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