- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

Americans are frustrated with Congress. Congressional approval is at historic lows. Voters threw out the Republicans in 2006 hoping for a change, but the Democrats have proved completely dysfunctional.

Why can’t we just get along and work together for the good of the nation? There is a clear, if not obvious reason.

Teams and organizations work well together when they have a shared purpose and consensus goals. Congress has neither. When members of Congress are sworn in to office, we take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

This Constitution prescribes a limited role for the federal government whose purpose is to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty … This purpose statement should give Congress a clear focus on national priorities and the good of the nation as a whole.

Unfortunately, many members of Congress have forgotten that oath and lost sight of our constitutional purpose. Instead of conducting our business in Congress with an eye toward what is best for the whole country, we fight about what is best for our next election and who can get the most taxpayer dollars for his state or congressional district. This is not how our Founders intended Congress to function.

A primary culprit is the addictive power of the congressional earmarking process — whereby members of Congress secure taxpayer dollars for pork barrel projects in their districts or states.

My objection to earmarks has never been to specific lawmakers. The requirement that earmarks now have names on them makes them personal, but it’s really the earmarking system that is the problem.

When members of Congress invest their time in securing federal funds for sewer plants and bike paths in their districts, they are doing more than assuming a federal role for a local responsibility: They are locking themselves into voting for whatever bill happens to contain their projects.

For this reason, Congress has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to curb out-of-control spending. Members who may otherwise vote against massive wasteful spending bills end up voting aye because it contains a project for a special interest back home.

I have spent enough time working with my colleagues to know that most are not corrupt. They love their country and want to make it a better place. But the system of earmarking has taken our energy and diverted it away from solving national problems and wasted it on the task of steering tax dollars back home. Earmarking results in a terrible waste of taxpayer money, but the greatest cost is the wasted opportunity to address serious national challenges.

In January, the first Baby Boomer will receive her first Social Security check. In just three years, she’ll qualify for Medicare. With 77 million Americans in line right behind her, now is the time for Congress to address the long-term fiscal crisis that lies ahead.

Social Security and Medicare are trillions of dollars underfunded. Yet we are so focused on using earmarks to deal with local issues like determining the location of local parks and community centers that we are failing to address these serious national problems.

I did not come to Washington to fight against earmarks, but the culture of earmarks is distracting the attention of Congress from much needed national reforms, so I have made eliminating earmarks an urgent and immediate goal.

Already in this new Congress — which promised to be more transparent and to cut earmarks in half — we have seen many shameless requests for pork projects including hippie museums and taxpayer-funded monuments to individual members of Congress.

Worse, members of Congress insist on hiding these wasteful pork projects behind some of our nation’s most important priorities. Earmark addicts this year have held hostage health care for poor children, veterans’ benefits and funding for our troops in order to sneak through their pork.

We have basically made human shields out of the most vulnerable Americans, giving members of Congress two bad choices: either vote for bloated bills that are billions over budget and full of wasteful earmarks, or vote against national priorities and needy constituents. This is no way to run the most important government in the world.

So we ended another year with a lot more debt and a lot of broken promises. We have not helped Americans buy health insurance; in fact, we have made it harder. We haven’t cut spending; we have raised it. Our antiquated tax code continues to chase jobs overseas. And we have not addressed the looming entitlement crisis.

Meanwhile we have increased the number of special interest and wasteful earmarks from last year, and both parties are bragging that we did better than expected.

Instead of keeping promises, we have let the earmarking system pervert our purpose as members of Congress.

The American people deserve better and when they demand better, they’ll get it. Voters must help Congress break it’s addiction to earmarks and force it to regain its focus on the good of our nation.

Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, is a member of the United States Senate.

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