Why I don’t do earmarks

Rep. Joseph R. Pitts Congressman, Pennsylvania 16th District
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The Constitution gives Congress the exclusive power to decide how taxpayer money is spent. It may come as surprise, therefore, that House Republicans voted almost unanimously on March 11 to declare a moratorium on the practice of earmarking funds for specific projects.

I not only voted for the moratorium, I was among the Republicans who called for the move. I stopped asking for earmarks myself more than three years ago.

Why?  Because earmarks are out of control. Ronald Reagan once vetoed a highway bill because it contained 152 earmarks.  Today, it is not uncommon for one bill to contain thousands. Last year’s omnibus spending bill funded more than 8,000 of them. Most fund good and useful things.

Many, however, do not. Earmarks have been directed for things like migratory loons in Nevada, a museum to commemorate the 1969 Woodstock concert, and a golf school.  One earmark spent over $1 billion to reintroduce salmon to a river that had run dry.

The reason for such silly earmarks is that the earmark process seems designed to avoid accountability.  Most of the money Congress spends is argued for in hearings, debated in committee, authorized by legislation, and voted on by the House and Senate.  Earmarks, on the other hand, are often added to legislation long after most of this process is complete.  Some are even added during final House-Senate negotiations when it is too late for the individual chambers to alter the bills.  This, of course, is intentional.

Members of Congress have been caught requesting earmarks in exchange for campaign contributions. Members of Congress have been caught earmarking funds for organizations run by friends and family members. Some have even created non-profit organizations through which to funnel money and mask the true beneficiaries of their earmarks.

The process of requesting earmarks is deeply flawed, highly controversial, and clearly prone to abuse.  Earmarks have become not only a symbol of what’s wrong with Washington and the current Democratic Congress, but also a symbol of how many Republicans lost their way during the last half of our twelve-year stretch in the majority.

More than anything else, I urged my colleagues to declare this self-imposed moratorium on earmarks because I believe it is an essential step for Republicans as we seek to regain credibility on one of the party’s core goals: limited, frugal government.

When I first got to Congress I asked to serve on the House Budget Committee.  Four years in a row, I helped write balanced budgets that actually paid off some of the government’s debt.  This was done through sometimes difficult negotiations with the Clinton White House—but it was done. Real bipartisanship works.  Balancing the budget is possible.  I have done it, both in Washington and in my time in Harrisburg.

But in the latter years of the Republican majority (1995 – 2007), the GOP lost its way.  I found myself voting against fully one-third of my party’s annual appropriations bills.  I found myself voting against some of President Bush’s top priorities, from No Child Left Behind to the Bank Bailout.  Since Nancy Pelosi became Speaker, I have voted for three appropriations bills, but opposed the rest because they spent too much.

When Congress spends beyond its means, it is stealing from our children.  Today, Congress is stealing on a scale that would make even Bernie Madoff blush.  Most Americans are aware of the government’s $13 trillion debt.  Most Americans are not, however, aware that the government has made commitments to spend well over $100 trillion that it does not have and has no prospects of ever being able to raise.  Medicare, Social Security, and even our national defense infrastructure will all collapse if Congress does not rein in spending very soon.  Some, in fact, say it is too late already.

The Republican earmark moratorium will not balance the budget.  It will, however, save far more money than the largely phony earmark moratorium Nancy Pelosi announced the same week.  It is a first step, but a crucial one.

Rep. Joe Pitts (R) represents Pennsylvania’s 16th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.