- - Thursday, January 18, 2018


Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have made two related, and stunning, announcements. First, that they are considering foregoing a budget this year, and second, that they may reintroduce earmarks. Those announcements would hardly be noteworthy if Democrats were in control of Congress, but the GOP has consistently campaigned on a message of fiscal discipline. Fiscal discipline, however, necessitates a budget, and is hardly possible when earmarks are on the table.

With Republicans like these, who needs Democrats?

For years, when the Democrats failed to pass a budget, Republicans took them to task for it, calling into question their leadership and their lack of fiscal discipline. But now that the Republicans control both chambers of Congress, Republicans seem to have forgotten their tough words in the past about the need for a budget.

South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford, a member of the House Budget Committee, weighed in on the idea of abandoning a budget with a refreshingly commonsense viewpoint. “In the same way [that] a budget is important for determining spending for a family, it’s one of those absolute necessities and basics of financial discipline in government.”

To govern is to choose. Budgets are important because they provide an opportunity to assess and determine spending priorities, and to cut out wasteful spending. They also allow for the introduction of new, worthwhile ideas.

One idea that the GOP could pursue with a budget would be the Penny Plan, which calls for the very modest reduction of federal spending by one percent (a mere penny reduction on every dollar currently spent) until the budget is balanced.

If Republicans really do abandon the hard work of putting together a budget this year, they will be abandoning more than just a budget - they will also be abandoning the opportunity to showcase conservative principles and priorities. No budget means conservatives will lose the opportunity to enact entitlement reform and welfare reform. And, in a much larger sense, Republicans will be abandoning the opportunity to tackle the $20 trillion in federal debt that our nation now carries.

In announcing the possibility of foregoing a budget this year, Republicans in Congress are signaling that they are not serious about draining the swamp. Voters will be inclined to interpret the failure to pass a budget as evidence that Republicans lack a vision for how to drain the swamp, or that they lack the courage to implement that vision.

Either way, voters, heading into the November elections, are unlikely to be reassured about the GOP’s ability to lead on Capitol Hill.

While abandoning a budget is one side of the fiscally-irresponsible coin, earmarks are the other side.

Earmarks, which were banned in 2011, were simply the funding mechanism by which members of Congress were able to funnel taxpayer funds (sometimes to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars) for special pet projects in their districts. The practice rightfully came under intense public scrutiny after the now-infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” was exposed in 2005. The Bridge to Nowhere would have linked the island town of Gravina, Alaska (population of 50) to Ketchikan, Alaska, at a total cost of $320 million in three separate earmarks.

The Bridge to Nowhere was an outrageous, but by no means out-of-the-ordinary, abuse of taxpayer dollars through the earmarking process. Earmarks disrupted the free market, by allowing organizations and companies to receive federal funding, irrespective of their merits or viability. Taxpayers were stuck footing the bill for programs and projects that would have never survived in the free market because they were such bad ideas (again as the “Bridge to Nowhere” illustrates).

In many ways, earmarks embodied everything that is wrong with the Washington swamp. They empowered incumbents by allowing members of Congress to curry favor with their constituents through pork packages - that is, securing votes through lavish earmarks. Earmarks also strengthened lobbyists and the culture of cronyism. And earmarks fostered corruption through their lack of transparency. (Former Congressman Duke Cunningham, who served time in prison for accepting bribes in exchange for earmarks, comes to mind.)

It was for all of these reasons that taxpayers welcomed the ban on earmarks in 2011.

Congressman Mark Meadows, who leads the conservative Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives, has remarked that there is “little appetite” among conservative lawmakers for reintroducing the practice of earmarks. As someone who regularly travels around the country to talk with grassroots activists, I can take Rep. Meadows’ statement and go one better - there is even less of an appetite among everyday Americans for resurrecting earmarks than there is among conservatives in the House and Senate.

Abandoning a budget this year would be proof that Republicans have lost touch with their fiscal conservatism. But reintroducing earmarks? That would be proof that Republicans have utterly lost touch with reality.

If Republicans want to retain their majorities in the 2018 elections, they should showcase their fiscal conservatism. And that means, at a minimum, a thoughtful budget and forgetting about earmarks.

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