Wednesday, January 25, 2006


The recent Abramoff scandal has increased awareness of corruption in politics. Perhaps the lessons to be learned from this most recent scandal are not quite what they appear to be based upon most of the discussion. Consider a recent commentary by John Fund :
"In the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, It seems everyone has discovered the excesses of pork-barrel spending. Voters may now be disgusted enough to make the political costs to a member seeking pork greater than the benefits.

Mr. Abramoff was a master at deploying his lobbying shop to get his clients earmarks, or spending projects that members of Congress directly request for a specific use or beneficiary. While some earmarks are worthy items that simply didn't make a bureaucrat's priority list, many others are howlers such as Alaska's infamous "bridge to nowhere." Abuses can easily happen, since the number and dollar value of earmarks have quadrupled in the last decade. Many of the 15,000-plus earmarks Congress passed last year were quietly slipped into last-minute conference reports. Members thus had no opportunity to debate, amend or question them. That's how the federal transportation bill finances a $3.5 million horse trail in Virginia and a $50 million indoor rainforest in Iowa."
It's kind of hard for me to imagine that our Constitution is consistent with the practice of earmarks. It is certainly true that the Constitution grants Congress the power to tax and spend on programs consistent with the enumerated powers of Congress. But this is a power of Congress and not a power granted to each individual member of Congress. Earmarks allow Congressman X or Senator Y to say that project Z back home, which is the brain child of Mr. K (a friend? neighbor? contributor?), will get money from taxpayers all across the country.

Many seem worried about money in politics "buying influence." Perhaps with earmarks, money can buy a more direct and certain return than just influence, eh? Maybe there would be less corruption in Washington if Congress was significantly constrained in its ability to respond to rent seeking. There was a time in the history of constitutional jurisprudence that the Supreme Court rendered opinions that often constrained such rent seeking. I suspect corruption will always be a part of politics, but perhaps the only effective way of reducing the impact of corruption is to constrain rent seeking in government. If the returns to spending money in politics are reduced, shouldn't we see less effort to buy politicians?

While I have you thinking about the constitution. Notice the 2 illustrations of earmarks in Fund's commentary. One of the earmarks funds a horse trail in Virginia and the other funds a rain forest in Iowa. I'm hard pressed to find an enumerated power in Article I, Section 8 that gives Congress the constitutional power to fund such activities. Can you explain to me why we should think the Constitution gives Congress the power to fund such activities to begin with?

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