Don't Let Me Stop You

What the heck, you'll do what you want anyway.

Tom Coburn for President

Posted by Dan Draney on February 12, 2006

Our favorite freshman Senator is at it again. He’s stil got “budget earmarks” in his jaws, and he won’t let go, much to the chagrin of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. For those who haven’t been paying close attention, “earmarks” are specific spending provisions inserted into the budget for projects in individual congressional districts. In the Congress today earmarks are the main method for our elected representatives to grab “their share” at the trough so that they can buy votes back home.

When Coburn stood up last year to challenge ridiculous earmarks, like the Alaskan Bridge to Nowhere, Washington was scandalized. Unfortunately, the anger was not directed at the spenders and the spending, but at Coburn for having the temerity to challenge business as usual.

However, as George Will says, Coburn is “the most dangerous creature that can come to the Senate, someone simply uninterested in being popular.” He’s not afraid to standup to his own Congressional leadership, bless his heart. Now teamed up with John “I can’t always be wrong” McCain, Coburn is again turning up the heat on earmarking, and other Congressional pigs are squealing. He writes this week in OpinionJournal:

I am convinced that forcing hundreds or, if necessary, thousands of votes to strike individual earmarks is the only way to produce meaningful results for American taxpayers. Bringing the Senate to a standstill for as long as it takes would be a small price to pay for shutting down what Jack Abramoff described as Congress’s “earmark favor factory.” The battle against pork is crucial. Pork is the root cause of the unholy relationship between some members of Congress, lobbyists and donors. Inside Congress, the pork process is effectively a black market economy: Thousands of instances exist where appropriations are leveraged for fundraising dollars or political capital. It is delusional to claim Congress can redeem its relationship with K Street without eliminating earmarks. The problem is not lobbyists. The problem is us.

Those who argue that fighting pork distracts members from the more costly challenge of entitlement reform don’t understand human nature. Earmarks are a gateway drug on the road to the spending addiction. One day an otherwise frugal member votes for pork, the next day he or she votes for a bloated spending bill or entitlement expansion: A “no” vote might cut off their access to earmarks.

The spending machine will not give up without a fight, though:

Speaker Hastert, for his part, has said pork is “what members do” and that members are best positioned to know where to put a “red light in their district.” This vision of an imperial Congress, where urban planners in state and local governments can be usurped by individual congressman and their 20-something staffers, is unsettling. And every hour members spend on parochial obsessions is an hour they can’t devote to oversight, balancing the budget or serious national security issues.

That was quite the Freudian slip by Speaker Hastert, considering the entire Congress has become a Red Light District, with Jack Abramoff just the latest pimp to get busted.

Unfortunately, Nebraska Senator Ben Neslon is among those defending earmarks. He’s quoted in

“The purpose is to support projects with merit,” he said. “Why would they prefer to have faceless, nameless bureaucrats in Washington decide rather than elected officials?” Without earmarks, Nebraska would be pitted against large-population states in competing for federal assistance, Nelson said. “The money would still be expended,” he said, “and it would go somewhere else.”

Clearly our favorite Democratic Senator has gotten hooked on earmarks himself. The fact is that spending is much higher with earmarks than it would be without them. The “somewhere else” that the money would go is back into the capital markets due to reduced federal borrowing and/or lower taxes. Drawing the comparison between spending decisions by Congress vs. the federal bureaucracy is also a false dichotomy. The proper question is, “Why are elected officials in Washington in a better position than state and local elected officials to decide if a project is really needed.” We certainly don’t need or want Congress micromanaging spending of 25% of GDP (or more) on a national basis.

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