I have fallen way behind in reading the hard copy magazines that I get. The Nov. 3 issue of Newsweek, that arrived in late October, contains a very useful and informative explanation of the most famous earmarked project in the last decade or so: the doomed “Bridge to Nowhere.”
Its author is the newly elected Mayor of Ketchican, Alaska, the 14,000 resident town that the bridge would have connected to its airport across the narrows – and connected the town to the only developable relatively flat land anywhere near to Ketchican. Ketchikan, as small as it is, is the fourth largest city in Alaska. I have no particular brief for this project and its outlandish expense, but it is worth reading a well thought out, courteous and clear article from “the other side.” You can read this short article HERE.
As the mayor-elect, Dave Kiffer, points out, earmarks were once not seen as simply “pork” but as a way that the elected Representative or Senator from an area could try to meet, in a timely fashion, the felt needs of his or her constituents. They were seen as a way to meet urgent needs that the Federal bureaucracy was both too slow and too unspecific to process in an efficient way.
Earmarks, he says, currently account for only about 1% of the total Federal Budget. I didn’t track the veracity of that remark, but it sounds about right. During the campaign for President, critics of John McCain argued that his pledge to eliminate earmarks and pork, while a noble idea, could, at best, eliminate only about $18 billion dollars of expense a year. That is not an insignificant amount but it pales in comparison to the annual Federal Budget.
Long before I read Kiffer’s article I have thought that, for me at least, the issue of earmarks and so-called pork was less about the need to take a general stand against this “evil,” but rather the problem was that some earmarks seemed to be, and probably were, frivolous, or worse, payoffs to lobbies and corporations for favors done for the congressman/woman.
Concurrently, I felt that there is a gross unfairness as to who is able to get earmarks and who is not. Committee Chairmen are in position to easily get earmarks, particularly those of the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees. And seniority plays a huge roll in deciding who gets a cut of the pie. Junior and short term members of Congress usually get just a few, relatively low cost, projects. They have, it seems, to ‘pay their dues” and “do the time” to get a larger piece of the pork pie. Part of that paying of dues over time turns into mutual backscratching and gaining access to the system to know which bills to attach the pork to and which bills are going nowhere.
The best bills to attach earmarks to are, of course, bills that are urgently needed for other important and popular causes which means that, since the President does not have an line item veto authority, those bills are likely to get passed and signed. It has been a rare President indeed who would risk, for example, vetoing a bill that, if vetoed would literally run the government out of money. It has happened, but it is rare.
A line item veto would be of some help, but is not the panacea that many think. For example, when the same party controls both the White House and the Congress it is possible to laden an otherwise good bill with tons of pork with the assurance that the line item veto would not be used.
I would be interested in hearing from OS members their ideas about what should be done about pork barrel projects and other earmarks.
Keeping in mind that our representative democracy is founded on the assumption that our representatives and senators know best the needs are of the area they represent, should earmarks be done away with totally?
Here is a possibility that I think might be worth trying. Rather than doing away with all earmarks and pork, why not allocate a sum of money each year to each Representative and Senator to be spent on projects that he or she thinks would best meet the urgent needs of his or her constituents? The amount could be based on some formula, like the population of districts and states, with a minimum amount per state and district so that even the smallest states and districts would get some money to spend. Its just a thought, and its not thought through, but something along these lines could solve the problem of backscratching and inequitable allocation of earmarks that we see today.
What do you think about this whole issue?