A top congressional priority: cutting waste

  • 13 February 2017
  • NormanL
A top congressional priority: cutting waste

As the Trump administration grapples with what sort of tax cut program it intends to push through Congress, others are looking at the spending habits of official Washington, and where cuts should be made.

Citizens Against Government Waste has produced a report outlining what it calls "Critical Waste Issues" for Congress to address. There is plenty of work to do on this front, and CAGW has a solid list of where the elected worthies can begin. We were most interested in the section on congressional earmarks. As we reported last week, earmarks aren't dead, and there are plenty of self-described conservative Republicans eager to bring back one of DC's worst spending habits.  As CAGW notes:

On November 16, 2016, Reps. John Culberson (R-Texas), Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) offered an amendment to the House Republican Conference that would have modified the earmark moratorium and permitted legislators to add earmarks to a limited group of federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.  Earmarks for recreation facilities, parks, and other such projects would have been disallowed under the plan.  House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) managed to delay the vote to the first quarter of 2017.

This amendment was offered only eight days after an election in which voters made it abundantly clear that they desired an end to wasteful spending in Washington and gave Republicans control of both chambers of Congress as well as the executive branch.  A vote to resurrect earmarks would have been (and might be still) a shocking repudiation of these results.

These three members either have incredibly short memories, or are trying to lose their party’s majority in the next election.  They have apparently forgotten that earmarking led to congressional corruption, including the incarceration of legislators (mostly Republicans), staff, and lobbyists who used the process to buy votes.  They also seem to have no recall of the loss of the House majority by Republicans in the 2006 elections – the same year as the record $29 billion in pork.

Although the earmark moratorium that began in FY 2011 has not been perfect (CAGW continues to identify earmarks, including 123 in FY 2016 costing $5.1 billion) and there remains a distinct lack of transparency in the process, appropriations bills in this era have contained far less pork.  This has been an undeniably positive step.

One of the most frequently-used arguments in favor of a return to earmarks is that they would help pass certain spending bills.  In the past, however, members voted for excessively expensive legislation because they received a few earmarks; thus, the moratorium has helped restrain spending.  A return to rampant earmarking would inevitably increase the risk of corruption and the potential for an explosion in expenditures compared to current levels.

Earmarks create a few winners (appropriators, special interests, and lobbyists) and a great many losers (taxpayers).  They contribute to the deficit directly, by tacking on extra funding, and indirectly, by attracting votes to costly legislation that might not otherwise pass.  Earmarks corrupt democracy by eclipsing more important matters in the minds of legislators and voters.

Repealing the moratorium would inexorably result in a return to the peak years of earmarking.  It would also likely mark the return of wasteful expenditures such as the Bridge to Nowhere, studies of Goth culture, and the construction of indoor rain forests.

Since FY 1991, the year of the first Congressional Pig Book Summary, CAGW has identified 110,442 earmarks costing $323.1 billion.  The vast majority of these occurred prior to the earmark moratorium.  The biggest earmark totals in terms of number and cost certainly occurred prior to the moratorium.  While the present system is not without its problems, it is a far better alternative than a return to the bad old days of the Wild West of earmarks.

We urge you to read the entire report.

Tax cuts are good things -- essential for spurring private sector economic growth. But unless they are coupled with spending cuts, the end result is a federal government that is even deeper in debt.

And as for earmarks...those who advocate their return may believe they are on the side of angels. But history shows otherwise. Earmarks lead nowhere good...and for some, even jail. End them -- permanently.