- - Thursday, May 15, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Today we discuss the fight over two endangered species: the Washington earmark and the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse. The current state of both tells us a lot about what’s so dysfunctional in our government today.

There’s new battle brewing on Capitol Hill over reviving earmarks, the targeted spending items members put into spending bills, a practice now banned. House Speaker John Boehner says bringing back earmarks is “not gonna happen” so long as he’s in charge. But Harry Reid, the Senate’s top Democrat, wants them back. My guess is that Harry Reid wins the battle, since the president will support whatever he wants and Mr. Reid has so much control over what happens in the Senate that the Republicans have trouble just participating in the debate, let along getting anything done.


SEE ALSO: EDITORIAL: Bribery (aka the earmark) attempts a comeback in Congress



PHOTOS: Best concealed carry handguns


It seems, to me, however, that the whole debate over earmarks covers up what should be the real fight, and that’s the fight over spending overall. The power of the purse is the only leverage the House Republican majority has in the current policy fights. They need to exercise that power and not give up the advantage that earmarks provide.

Now I’ll be first to concede that the practice got out of hand, even when I was serving in Congress. But first you have to distinguish between good and bad earmarks. I’m all for banning earmarks that have no national or constitutional purpose. Ban the special-interest items that build parking lots or suburban swimming pools, or fund a grant to watch a shrimp run on a treadmill. Those kinds of things deserve to be junked.

The problem is, though, if you put on a total earmark ban, you’re effectively saying that the bureaucrats in the Executive Branch get to decide where all the money they get is spent. An earmark ban means the House is giving up the power of the purse — and getting nothing in return.


SEE ALSO: Utah lawmaker moves to disarm BLM, IRS, says ‘They’re not paramilitary units’


Certainly there ought to be transparency about earmarks. They should be constitutional. They should have a national significance. Voters should be able to examine each and every earmark and see how their member voted on them.

But for all the debate, earmarks represent only 1 percent of total spending. The reason our federal government spending is so out of control has nothing to do with earmarks. Earmarks can be a way for Congress to actually rein in spending, using the power of the purse to eliminate offices, programs and policies that are plainly unconstitutional and serve no national purpose.

The reason we are saddled with a $17 trillion debt is because we have allowed the Constitution to be shredded and because we have approved all manner of spending that is blatantly unconstitutional.

Which brings us to the “meadow jumping mouse.”

There’s an effort underway by the Obama administration to shut down a broad swath of federal lands used for cattle grazing in New Mexico to protect the little mouse, which is expected to be placed on the list of endangered species last month. Cattle are being deprived of water from traditional grazing grounds, and the Forest Service people there say the order to close down the grazing land came from Washington. It’s all part of a larger War on the West being waged by the Obama administration on behalf of environmental extremists.

Well, during the appropriations process, the House put an earmark in the bill funding the Forest Service to stop them from using any money to shut down the disputed lands. That’s a legitimate national purpose and policy goal, and the earmark is the only way the House has of sending that message so it will be heard.

Again, I acknowledge that earmarks have been and can be abused. But the same things that are going on in New Mexico are happening in policy area after policy area across the federal government. Look at what the Obama administration wants to do on energy policy, on coal regulations, drilling, land use, business regulation, the Keystone pipeline, climate change, immigration — over and over, the administration is hurting our economy and hurting the ability of average Americans to raise a family and make a living.

In so many cases, an earmark is the most effective way for the House GOP majority not only to make its views known, but to have a real impact on policy and spending choices. On this issue, Congress should not unilaterally disarm.

Tom DeLay, a former congressman from Texas and House majority leader from 2003 to 2005, writes a weekly column for The Washington Times and www.washingtontimes.com.