Arguably the first fruit of the tea party movement has been the stunning turn of voters against earmarks. Like the radical shift in public tolerance of drinking and driving in the 1980s, this year earmarks 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 show whether they are truly serious this time about stopping earmarks and pork.
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. 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, D.C., insiders can dismiss their corrupting influence.
Every time I hear powerful Congress members dismiss concerns about earmarks, I think of Kentucky Republican Hal Rogers, the senior House appropriator who has loaded pork into the federal budget. Rogers is the ranking member on the appropriations subcommittee that funds homeland security. After 9/11, he 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, Ky. 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 shipbuilding 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 it — and years later, when a newspaper exposé was published, it still sat idle.
Some apologists insist earmarks are a manifestation of the U.S. Constitution’s grant to Congress of the government’s spending power. Nevada Sen. Harry Reid insists earmarks have been going on “since we were a country.” But earmarks 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 came to less than 900 projects for $2.6 billion in 1992. By 2005, congressional pork had mushroomed to nearly 14,000 projects gouging taxpayers by more 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 earmarks when, as House speaker, he maneuvered then-Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana to the appropriations chairmanship. Together they helped establish the earmark as the modern Congress member’s favorite tool of seduction. Also, Livingston 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.
In the House, the situation is more complex. In the wake of the GOP 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.”
Some in the nation’s capital find it hard to believe that the first act of House and Senate Republicans would be to genuinely enforce earmark reform. Backing off would trigger tea party activists’ disenchantment with congressional Republicans. That is why the next months could be a defining moment for new GOP Congress members.
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is a former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest. This article is adapted from The Weekly Standard.