Every time I hear Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell dismiss concerns over earmarking, I think of his fellow Kentucky Republican Hal Rogers, the senior House appropriator who has loaded pork into the federal budget.
Rogers, who hails from the mountains of eastern Kentucky, is the ranking member on the appropriations subcommittee that funds homeland security. After 9/11, Rogers used tens of millions in earmarks (some $10 million last year alone) to fund a National Institute for Hometown Security in his isolated hometown of Somerset, Kentucky. His political pals are on the payroll at salaries far exceeding the local norm.
Or go out to pristine Washington state, the domain of liberal Democrat Patty Murray, who has used her clout to earmark millions for firms that employ a host of her former Senate committee aides. The classic case of Murray earmark abuse is the $4.5 million she (and a pair of House colleagues) forced the Navy to give a Washington ship-building company to construct an 85-foot speedboat for which the Navy had no use. Once the boat was paid for, the Navy handed it over to the University of Washington. But the university could find no use for the $4.5 million boat—and years later, when a newspaper exposé was published, it still lay idle.
Indeed, a Seattle Times series on earmarking found that the most important employees for many defense contractors aren’t engineers to build the weapons of the future but Washington lobbyists to get earmarks.
Examples of earmark abuse are so plentiful—Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere became a symbol of pork barrel spending gone mad—that it is difficult to conceive how Washington insiders can dismiss their corrupting influence.
Some apologists insist earmarks are a manifestation of the Constitution’s grant to Congress of the government’s spending power. Nevada’s Harry Reid insists earmarking has been going on “since we were a country.” But earmarking did not become a widespread political tool in Congress until late in the 20th century.
According to a study of earmarks and pork for Citizens Against Government Waste, congressional pork in 1992 came to less than 900 projects for $2.6 billion. By 2005 congressional pork had mushroomed to nearly 14,000 projects gouging taxpayers better than $27 billion. The dollar figure may not sound large these days, but the corrosive effect on legislators’ principles of tens of thousands of favors delivered and owed is huge.
Newt Gingrich may have played a leading role in the growth of earmarking when as speaker he maneuvered then-representative Bob Livingston of Louisiana to the appropriations chairmanship. Together they helped establish the earmark as the modern congressman’s favorite tool of seduction. Livingston also froze into place the longtime (mostly Democratic) staff of the Appropriations Committee, further entrenching the sense of entitlement that has long separated the spenders from their congressional colleagues.
Arguably the first fruit of the Tea Party movement has been the stunning turn of voters against earmarking. It once was a given in modern American politics that powerful appropriators would plant benefits for the folks back home in the tradition of the rich aunt who always remembered your birthday.
Like the radical shift in public tolerance of drinking and driving in the 1980s, earmarks this year have come to be viewed by many as symptomatic of a deep-seated corruption in American government.
In coming days, in both the Senate and the House, Republicans will have the opportunity to stop earmarks and pork. On November 16, South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, who along with his Republican colleagues Tom Coburn and John McCain, has long battled for earmark reform, will be forcing a vote in the GOP conference on a moratorium on earmarks.
Ultimately, DeMint sees term limits for appropriators as the only real path to reform, but Old Dogs like Minority Leader McConnell are having a hard time accepting even the moratorium.
In the House, the situation is more complex. In the wake of the GOP House victory, the Wall Street Journal editorial page gave John Boehner a huge spread to explain “What the Next Speaker Must Do.” Prominent in the article was a pledge: “No earmarks.”
But the ink was not dry before Boehner was giving former appropriations chairman Jerry Lewis—one of Congress’s most notorious earmarkers—reason to believe that Speaker Boehner might grant a waiver to the House Republican term limit rule that would block Lewis from resuming the chairmanship.
Keeping Boehner true to his word is especially important since insiders believe that without Lewis in the race, House Republicans would select Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia, a respected conservative and reformer who was largely responsible for the House GOP earmark moratorium last year. These decisions will be finalized in the House GOP conference and caucus on November 17 and 18.
Some in Washington find it hard to believe that the first act of House and Senate Republicans would be to back off on earmark reform. To do so would prompt Tea Party disenchantment with congressional Republicans. That is why the next few days could be a defining moment for the new House majority.
Meanwhile, one guesses that Hal Rogers’s payrollers at the National Institute for Hometown Security in Somerset are feeling a little less secure this week.
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is a former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest.