- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Here’s an idea for earmark reform. As a constant reminder of their fiscal profligacy, why not emblazon a red letter “E” on the forehead of every member of Congress who gets one of these spending perks. If nothing else, it would make it even easier for investigative reporters and partisan operatives to embarrass and intimidate lawmakers trying to exercise their constitutional responsibility to direct federal spending

Earmarks appear out of control, and Congress’s standing as an institution has suffered due to a constant barrage of stories about them — the new scarlet letter of congressional spending. Some infamous examples of abuse have been brought to light in the past year, while earmarks have burgeoned in the last decade. One group estimates the number ballooned from about 546 in 1991 to nearly 14,000 by 2005.

But something is missing in the debate about and coverage of this growing spending practice. While most news accounts and pundits are long on criticism, they are short on explanation. They highlight a couple of notorious anecdotes, like federal funds to study some strange creature. If “Green Eggs and Pork” is the Dr. Seuss version of earmark expansion, the real story is more like “War and Peace.”

True, the practice deserves more sunshine and disclosure as House Republicans propose. Understanding why the practice has evolved makes the earmark process more comprehensible and also a little less sinister. But earmarking will probably remain one of the great ironies of legislative government — a practice that helps individual members politically and keeps the gears of the process moving, all while exacting a toll on the public perception of Congress.

First, earmarks are a direct result of partisan polarization and legislative gridlock. My discussions with Capitol Hill veterans reveal an interesting and often-missed point. Appropriations bills are the only “sure bet” annual legislative accomplishments in an environment where one party can easily obstruct the other’s agenda. “After Republicans took over the majority following 1994, one of the only ways we could get legislation through was attaching it to appropriations bills,” a former House staffer told me. “That meant doing a lot more earmarks.”

Add to this the growth in use of omnibus year-end spending bills. These vehicles become the only trains to enactment in a more polarized environment and hence attract targeted spending items that Congress would never complete separately — not an excuse for earmarks, but a way to explain their growth.

Second, earmarks are also an epithet of a closely divided Congress. Former staff members tell me that a conscious effort was implemented — by both parties — to allocate more money to vulnerable lawmakers in the form of earmarks over the past decade. The irony here is that while this earmarked spending may help individual politicians where they need it most in their home districts, the collective effect of the practice contributes to Congress’s decline in popularity as an institution because it’s perceived as the most egregious form of special-interest spending by voters.

Third, the growth in earmarking demonstrates another congressional truism: Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. The growing demand for this kind of directed spending over the past decade is the result of interest groups seeing it work for others. “It’s not K Street lobbyists who think these things up,” one former senior House staffer told me. “Colleges, universities and transportation systems all see one group get an earmark and then they want one, too.”

Finally, more earmarks do not always mean increased overall spending. “The number of earmarks has grown as Members try to protect their own priorities in a shrinking pie environment, but lots are earmarked out of existing funds,” one knowledgeable staffer told me. According to this view, earmarks are more a way to direct spending than to increase it.

The disclosure initiatives proposed by House Republican leaders will help calm some public skepticism about the earmarking process, but the irony of earmarks will no doubt remain. The process of making legislative sausage is never pretty, and more openness doesn’t guarantee public satisfaction with Congress. Still, more disclosure and better understanding of why lawmakers earmark will reduce harder-to-justify proposals and perhaps even shrink some of the glare of salaciousness around this scarlet letter of spending.

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