This is shaping up to be earmark week in both Houses of Congress. Right now Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is decrying the earmarking practice on the Senate floor in the debate over the pork-laden emergency supplemental for Iraq and rebuilding after the twin Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times both have articles about pork projects and earmarks today. In the CS Monitor Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) says, “It’s our only chance to maintain the majority. It really is,” probably refering to a recent poll that shows that prohibiting members from “directing federal funds to specific projects benefiting only certain constituents,” is one of the chief concerns of voters.
I’ve previously written about my misgivings about this poll. I believe this poll is similar to polls which show that the public believes that Congress is completely corrupt, but not their representative or Senator. A man in Nebraska interviewed in the New York Times makes my point for me, “I am critical of the fact that the federal government is worried about paying for parking garages — and for a million other things like that … But they are. And if they are, I want my senator to be in there. I want Nebraska to compete.” And it’s not just residents who don’t really mind the pork, the lawmakers like it too, and use it to sway votes. The National Journal’s Stan Collender states that in the current era of narrow majority rule earmarks and pet projects are necessary to maintain control of your caucus:
In an era of narrow majorities in both houses, when a handful of votes can make the difference between legislative success and failure, earmarks are an even more important way of doing business in Congress today than they have been in the past. They are now a key tool to getting anything done and eliminating them will make it even harder to get majority support.
This points directly to one of the great fallacies of the current discussion about eliminating or limiting earmarks. In spite of all of the attention earmarks have received this year, there is not a great deal of support for doing anything about them. Just the opposite is true: most members of Congress don’t want them limited and will fight hard to make sure it does not happen.
Very few of the players in the House and Senate stand to gain anything if the limits under discussion are adopted. The White House and leadership will reduce their ability to attract the additional votes they need to accomplish their legislative agendas. The appropriations committees will reduce their power because one of the few things they have to trade will be taken away. Individual members of Congress will find that their ability to deliver things for their constituents will be reduced substantially.
Certainly the leadership of both parties know this and are wary of those pushing to restrict the earmarking process. I think what would work best would be full transparency of earmarks followed by a peer-review process. Watching the current attempts by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) attempt to strip earmark provisions out of the supplemental truly shows the merits of this process. Not only are these appropriations open to debate on the floor but the author must stand up and defend the appropriation. It is an ideal process for debating the merits and motives of a particuar line item. Perhaps with a little sunlight we wouldn’t have members like Alan Mollohan (D-WV) and Pete Visclosky (D-IN) earmarking funds for campaign contributors, nor would we have jailed-Rep. Duke Cunningham’s shady earmarks going without notice.