The abuses of the earmark system has become so egregious that Congress is left with virtually no alternative but an outright ban on the unending stream of handouts to favored lobbyists and contributors. But it didn’t have to be this way.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has a point when he speaks about the importance of Congress controlling the federal purse strings and the power of the budget. Leaving the power to fund projects to nameless, faceless bureaucrats in the executive branch unaccountable to the public can result in uninformed or misguided priorities.
There are two problems that arose with earmarks. First, they became a way to reward lobbyists and campaign contributors without sufficient regard to the merit of the proposed project. Bob Kaiser’s book, on the rise of Cassidy and Associates revealed how the system works and how the link between earmarks and lobbyists has become a staple of the lucrative lobbying business in D.C. In the scheme of the federal budget, the amounts are often relatively minimal. But for the recipients – and for their lobbyists – the rewards are great. And for the politicians, it is a way to ensure that lobbyists continue to channel donations to their various entities – whether campaign committees, leadership PACs, nonprofits, or favorite charities.
The second problem is that most earmarks were done in the dark. Rather than proposed funding for specific projects or organizations be authorized and then funded, too many earmarks were slipped in without going through the authorization process. Congress struggled over the last several years to increase the transparency, but it was an unsatisfactory solution to the problem.
Members of Congress do know their districts better than the executive branch. They may also have different priorities than the Executive Branch and they should wield the power of the purse because they are accountable to their constituents.
But the earmark system got out of control. A ban may be the only way to start over and think clearly through a transparent accountable process that allows Members to play their constitutional role without turning it into a tawdry game of favors and a return for those favors.
The commentary above ran in The Hill's Congress Blog on November 16, 2010.