- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

In a small way, I used to be part of the problem. Now, as Montana’s congressman and the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees spending on health and education, I’m trying to be part of the solution.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I once directed federal funds to worthy projects across Montana by inserting tiny instructive clauses into spending bills. Each year, Congress slipped thousands of them into spending bills. The earmark was a way for us to bypass a broken spending system to do some small good for our constituents. Over the years, as the number of earmarks and the cost of the bills skyrocketed, they became a way for us to ignore the fact that the spending system was broken in the first place.

So last year, I supported efforts to ban earmarks. I continue to support that ban and will not submit any earmarks this Congress. Out-of-control spending - especially over the past two years - has caused record deficits, which add to record debt. Right now, we stand on a fiscal precipice, and a failure to lead will have devastating consequences. We have to make tough choices to rein in federal spending before it is too late. Our country literally cannot afford to wait until tomorrow.

I’ve always been an appropriator. Before I came to Washington, I served on the Appropriations Committee in the Montana state legislature. In Big Sky Country, appropriators find common ground to meet their constitutional mandate for a balanced budget. Appropriators must know each program inside and out so they know where the bodies are buried. When it comes time to cut spending, they know where to dig. They argue about the best ways to reduce spending, which is why Montana is one of just a few states with a balanced budget.

Washington could learn a lot from Montana.

What I’ve come to learn from direct personal experience is that earmarks make spending reform virtually impossible. By creating and sustaining a culture of spending instead of saving, they foster a sense of ownership in spending legislation. It’s tough to vote against a bad bill if it funds politically popular projects that you support back home.

Another cultural ramification of earmarks is the monopolization of scarce legislative resources. The time and political capital within Congress are zero-sum. And while earmarks may make up just 1 percent of the spending, they take up 99 percent of the time. The more time spent soliciting, organizing, verifying, vetting, prioritizing, submitting, explaining, promoting and securing an earmark, the less time can be spent on oversight for the remainder of the spending.

Of course, the American people get it, even while the establishment political class spins its wheels. For me, the decision to stop submitting earmarks came after meeting face to face with thousands of Montanans at town-hall meetings. Outside of Washington, folks aren’t holding their hands out for more pork - they’re worried that for the first time in our history, our children will inherit a country where the American dream is harder to achieve.

So House Republicans will not permit earmarks in this Congress. Rather than holding their hands out for more pork, representatives from both parties will use that time and energy to get our fiscal house in order by tackling the challenges that can no longer be ignored. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s the right thing to do.

This stand with the American public against earmarks will signal a shift in priorities for me as a reformed earmarker. Abandoning the fight for funding, we can begin the quest for savings the way I did it in Montana years ago.

I’ll bring those lessons with me as the chairman of the second-largest spending subcommittee in the House. In fact, the very first thing committee members did was reduce our operating budget by 9 percent. But that’s just the beginning.

Rep. Denny Rehberg is a Republican from Montana.