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January 28, 2006
The WSJ Almost Gets It Right

The latest Wall Street Journal editorial on pork once again sounds all the right alarms in dealing with the profligate spending in Washington and the ensuing corruption that it brings. It starts off by scoffing at an earmarked subsidy from the US Navy on a "waterless urinal" -- we used to call those pipes, by the way, and they didn't cost two million dollars -- and goes on to urge an end to all earmarks and a line-item veto:

Now for the good news. Amid the humiliating publicity about the bridge to nowhere in Alaska, maple syrup research in Vermont and blueberry subsidies in Massachusetts, nearly everyone in Congress is suddenly swearing off pork. All three Republicans running for House Majority Leader have pledged to end the abuse of "earmarks." And so has Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, though she too has used her political clout to steer millions of dollars to her California district.

Democrats insist they can do a better job than Republicans of protecting taxpayers from parochial spending on Capitol Hill. And it's hard to imagine they could do worse. The number of special-interest earmarks inserted into spending bills has quadrupled in five years to 14,000, and the price tag has more than doubled--to $27.1 billion last year.

Defenders of pork-barrel projects contend they are a trivial expense in a $2.6 trillion budget. Sadly, that's true, but it speaks volumes about the culture of overspending in Washington that $27,100,000,000 is dismissed as a rounding error. Unfathomably large spending bills, with hundreds upon hundreds of pages of line-item expenditures, have become normal budgeting practice in Congress. In this environment, $10 million giveaways start to seem like loose change.

Unfortunately, $27.1 billion is a rounding error -- it's 1% of the federal budget. Don't get me wrong; the earmarks need to get eliminated, and they do cause corruption. However, the Journal misses the larger point, which is that the other 99% of the budget causes corruption as well, and it causes a lot more of it than the 1% does, if for no other reason than its worth. And let's not forget that the 1% that goes to earmarking are one-time-only expenditures, not new programs that will continuously generate new costs and new oversight powers for the federal government.

Earmarks get used for helping out donors and public causes that politicians use to get elected, and then re-elected over and over again. Their constituents, unfortunately, act as enablers for this kind of corruption. They elect people on the basis of bringing home the money, getting federal expenditures for local projects that hijacks money from one set of taxpayers for the benefit of another. It's a gigantic shell game in which we all pony up an ante, and then hope that our particular con man can grab at least the amount we paid for our own use.

Line-item vetoes from the executive and forcing each earmark to pass a vote in Congress sound like reasonable reforms for the existing process, but it doesn't get to the root of the problem, which is the overall size of the federal budget itself. Too many mandates have been granted to federal control, most of which fall outside of the constitutional boundaries of federal power as it is. The size of the budget creates a vast treasure that encourages grand corruption that makes earmarks look like petty cash. Entitlements that stretch out into trillions of dollars over a generation invites the manipulation of special interests to ensure lifetime sinecures of government funding, not just a couple of years of office construction with some old pol's name eventually winding up on the facility.

The corruption cause du jour is the Jack Abramoff scandal, involving hundreds of thousands of dollars from Indian tribes going to politicians of both parties, 2-1 for the GOP since 1998. That corruption did not involve earmarks, but instead involved decisions made by the Department of the Interior and Congressional action on Indian gaming -- an industry generating billions of dollars. The corruption flows to where the money goes. And the money goes to power, which leads back to the other 99% of the federal budget.

We need to address earmarks and the petty pork that comprises the appetizer on government spending. If the Journal and the blogosphere wants to get serious about corruption and spending, then we need to attack it at its source: the expansion of federal power over the last seventy years. Only by making government smaller and reducing its reach, both legal and financial, into the lives of citizens will spending and corruption decrease. In the meantime, attacking earmarks will provide us the necessary momentum and training to go after the serious spending later on.

UPDATE: My calculation was incorrect, as noted by SF in the comments -- the earmarks are 1% of the federal budget, not 0.1%. This might explain my running deficit in my checking account, too ...

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 28, 2006 10:41 AM

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