Wednesday, August 01, 2007

More Earmark Corruption

Remember that not long ago one political party made heavy use of budget earmarks. If you haven't heard of this term yet an earmark means that one Senator or Congressman is allowed to decide specifically how to spend millions of taxpayer dollars. Often, in the past at least, such spending decisions of specific members of Congress were made secretly because the specific member of Congress making the earmark was not identified, and it was even quite frequently the case that the earmark was not even written into the language of the spending bill that the public could read and that all members of Congress voted on. Such a practice seems to me to clearly indicate there is signficant corruption in our Congress.

Remember also that not long ago the opposite political party made heavy use of being against earmarks in the rhetoric of a political campaign. This political party promised to significantly reform the practice of earmarks. While I personally don't see much to support in a campaign promise to reform Congressional corruption from being a lot of corruption to being less corruption, it is my sense that it was this promise that was a significant reason for this party being elected to control Congress at this time.

I have chosen not to use the names of the two political parties because it seems both parties act the same with respect to earmarks. It is not the case that one party or the other party is corrupt, but rather that Congress itself has become a government agency that is infected by the corruption we call budget earmarks. A WSJ commentary today (subscription required) makes this clear.
"As for Members restraining themselves, they once promised more transparency and limits for the pork-barrel projects known as "earmarks." These secret spending handouts have proliferated in recent years and in 2005 alone cost taxpayers some $27 billion. Worse, they are a kind of gateway drug used to buy votes for even greater spending. As the last unlamented Republican Congress showed all too well, earmarks are also major opportunities for corruption. The current investigation into Mr. Stevens, the long-time head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, centers on whether he may have directed millions in earmarks to benefit family, friends and business partners. (He says he has nothing to hide.)

Voters loathe this way of doing business, and Democrats did well last year campaigning to end the earmark status quo. The public embarrassment also allowed Republican Senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn to shame Majority Leader Harry Reid into agreeing to meaningful reform in January. Yet when the final reform emerged from Congressional backrooms last week, any serious reform had vanished. Mr. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proceeded to bring the bill to the floor in a fast-track procedure that has avoided most public scrutiny and limited the ability of reformers to offer amendments to restore the cuts."

Perhaps there are several things to emphasize in these paragraphs, but let me just point out two. First, note that the party leaders in each house "proceeded to bring the bill to the floor in a fast-track procedure that has avoided most public scrutiny and limited the ability of reformers to offer amendments to restore the cuts." Should we suggest that not only does Congress seem characterized by corruption these days, but in addition, at least the leadership (if not the Congressional membership in general) seems to have contempt for the public and perhaps for the basic principles that many people would say are the foundation of our republican form of government. Second, consider the figure for total earmarks in 2005, i.e., $27 billion. Since there are 535 members of Congress, this figure suggests that on average each member of Congress was allowed in 2005 to secretly spend about $50.5 million on projects and on people of their own personal choosing. Of course, that is an average and that means while many members of Congress were not participating in the practice of earmarks, perhaps by choice or perhaps because the Congressional leadership did not allow participation by each Congressional member, there are members of Congress who secretly spent much more than $50 million on their own personal pet projects. Of course, to me, all this seems quite corrupt, and that is just in terms of thinking members of Congress buy support for reelection by paying back people who give dollars to their Congressional reelection campaigns. It is often the case that the corruption is worse than this because often the earmarked monies are spent in ways that provide income for members of the family of the Congressman secretly spending the taxpayer's money.

What else can we learn from this WSJ commentary? Well things like:
"What remains is a sham of a reform. A prohibition on allowing Members to trade earmarks for votes? Gone. A restriction on allowing Members and their staff from promoting earmarks from which they or their families would receive a direct financial benefit? All but gone. The original reform required earmarks to be listed on the Internet and searchable 48 hours before consideration of legislation; the new bill says this is only required if it is "technically feasible." Here's betting Congress finds other urgent uses for its tech staff during Appropriations season.

Our favorite switcheroo: Under the previous Senate reform, the Senate parliamentarian would have determined whether a bill complied with earmark disclosure rules. Under Mr. Reid's new version, the current Majority Leader, that is Mr. Reid himself, will decide if a bill is in compliance. When was the last time a Majority Party Leader declared one of his own bills out of order?"

So, regardless of party, our Congress seems simply to be a corrupt political institution these days. But, perhaps there is another way of looking at all of this. Perhaps this "corruption" is just inherent in the very nature of any legislative body. Perhaps we can't expect members of Congress to behave differently in general because this is just the way legislatures act. If so, then perhaps this reality can't be changed; can't be "reformed."

Perhaps the best answer then to actions such as these that seem to clearly abuse political power is simply to make greater efforts to constrain Congress to a much smaller realm of power. Our Constitution was framed on the concept of enumerated powers which made explicit just those things Congress was supposed to have the power to do. Over the decades the Supreme Court has allowed this idea of enumerated powers to be so significantly eroded that, for the most part, Congress is now allowed the power to intervene in nearly every aspect of our system of political economy, and this means there are few significant meaningful constraints on Congressional action. It seems to me difficult to constrain members of Congress from abusing the legislative power when there are few real constaints on Congressional actions at all. Perhaps the only possible way to reduce government's abuse of power is to have a judicial branch of government that recognizes it's role is to constrain and limit government; not to facilitate and enable government to extend it's powers beyond those specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

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