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Lend Me Your Earmarks, cont.

12:29 PM, Nov 18, 2010 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Quin Hillyer writes this letter to the editor in response to Kenneth Tomlinson's latest piece, "Lend Me Your Earmarks," which appears in this week's issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD:

To the editor:

My friend Ken Tomlinson's otherwise superb article in the Nov. 22 issue (“Lend Me Your Earmarks”), with which I agree wholeheartedly in every other respect, is marred by one paragraph that repeats a bizarre myth that continually has popped up for the past 12 years, a myth that badly rewrites the public record. The myth is that former House Appropriations chairman U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston somehow encouraged fiscal indiscipline and ushered in a reign of pork-barrel spending in Washington. Tomlinson wrote that Livingston and former Speaker Newt Gingrich "establish[ed] the earmark as the modern congressman's favorite tool of seduction." Tomlinson also repeats the canard that Livingston "froze into place the longtime (mostly Democratic) staff" of his committee.

The facts are these: In 1995 and 1996 (for fiscal years 1995 via rescissions, 1996 and 1997), Livingston's committee cut almost exactly $50 billion in actual dollars in domestic discretionary spending, or just shy of $100 billion from the Democrats' projected spending levels. Earmarks as defined by Citizens Against Government Waste went from just 1,318 in 1994 to 1,596 in 1997, at a price in the last year of $14.5 billion (after which the cost dropped back to $12 billion under Livingston's watch). That's not a big jump in earmarks; it's stasis, combined with a domestic spending reduction overall.

It was after Livingston left Congress in early 1999 that earmarking, and spending, jumped through the roof. For fiscal year 2000, the first year he no longer oversaw the process, earmarks jumped to 4,326, at a cost of $17.7 billion, and steadily rose to 13,997, at a cost of $27.3 billion, in fiscal year 2005. It was not Livingston but Majority Leader Tom Delay and Chairman Bill Young who started using earmarks "as a tool of seduction."

As for the Democratic staff, it's a red herring. The new Republican Congress in 1995 cut committee staffs by one third. Each Appropriations member, in either party, had one assigned staffer. The Democrats on the committee merely kept their personal staffers, as did the Republicans. Meanwhile, Livingston cut the central office's staff by a large number in order to meet the required one-third reduction. On that central office staff, he kept about four of the non-ideological "green eyeshade" accountants and clerical help from the previous regime. That was it. Republicans took the top staff positions on each subcommittee, and a Republican became chief of staff.

For years, Livingston has failed to get the credit he deserves for his unparalleled success at trimming fat from the federal budget, while receiving blame for things he didn't do. Not only is it unfair, but it feeds the myth that the Gingrich Congress as a whole failed to honor its fiscal pledges. The truth is otherwise: Under Gingrich, Livingston, Budget Chairman John Kasich and Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, Republicans balanced the budget for the first time in more than three decades. That's a record worth celebrating, not trashing. Tomlinson's otherwise terrific advocacy of a local-interest earmark ban can stand on its own without obscuring Republicans' record of success in the 1990s.


Quin Hillyer

Note: Quin Hillyer, a senior editorial writer for the Washington Times and senior editor of The American Spectator, was Livingston's press secretary from 1991-1996. 

Kenneth Tomlinson responds:  

Quin Hillyer and his former boss Bob Livingston are well known as good people in this town, and my initial reaction was to allow his defense of his boss’s record as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee pass without comment. After all, and I should have made it clear that while earmarks increased notably under the Livingston chairmanship (at a time when he was purporting to be fighting waste), that increase pales in comparison to the obscene earmark spending under the leadership of his successor Florida Rep. Bill Young. 

But for the very reason I noted as a brief aside the disappointing Gingrich/Livingston record in the first place, I feel compelled to challenge Hillyer’s glowing tribute to his boss’s “unparalleled success at trimming fat from the federal budget.” 

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