Real progress against earmarks

Rep. Joseph R. Pitts Congressman, Pennsylvania 16th District
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In March, House Republicans unanimously supported a one-year moratorium on earmarks. I voted for the moratorium, and for years now I’ve been calling on my colleagues to stop a practice that is subject to corruption and encourages free spending.

I stopped taking earmarks almost four years ago, and I’m the only member of the Pennsylvania delegation with a standing policy against earmarks.

In these times, there is no reason for members of Congress to see the federal government as a piggy bank. Our national debt has climbed to more than $13 trillion, and our one-year deficit is projected to climb to more than $1.6 trillion. Earmarks aren’t spending spare change; they are creating more debt for our children and grandchildren.

Because of the unilateral Republican moratorium, earmarks were reduced in the House of Representatives this year. In the Defense Appropriations bill, one of the biggest earmark targets, funds for unrequested projects dropped to $1.2 billion. In the Senate, however, defense earmarks totaled more than $2.6 billion.

Neither party in the Senate has seriously considered a moratorium. However, there are individual members calling for accountability. Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK), Jim DeMint (R-SC), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) have all called on their colleagues to stop earmarks.

The current Congress isn’t ready to stop the pork train. What we need to do that are three things: support from Congressional leaders, new members willing to take a stand, and a president ready to use his veto pen.

I’ve been encouraged by how the House Republican leadership has supported the earmark moratorium and long-term reform. Republican Leader John Boehner has never requested an earmark, despite serving in the House during a time when tens of thousands of the requests were included in bills.

Last week, Republican Whip Eric Cantor spoke about how cutting earmarks can help get the federal budget under control. In a Wall Street Journal interview he said, “By eliminating earmarks, we can stop the horse trading that grows agency budgets.”

The Republican moratorium on earmarks lasts only until the end of this Congress. There may not be an appetite for continuing it among the current members of the Republican Conference. But our conference is about to undergo a dramatic change. Regardless of whether or not our party regains a majority in the House, there will be dozens of new members with a say about earmarks.

I know that many of them have promised to fight earmarks and other wasteful government spending. I hope that after the election, they will support strong Republican rules opposing earmarks. It’s tempting for freshman members to see Washington pork as a way to help get reelected. But in our current fiscal situation, we can no longer sacrifice long-term budget stability for short-term electoral gain.

The final thing we need to end wasteful earmarks is the cooperation of President Obama. The veto pen is the most effective weapon against waste. On the campaign trail, President Obama promised that he wouldn’t sign bills filled with earmarks.

Unfortunately, the first spending bill he signed contained more than 8,000 earmarks totaling more than $7.7 billion. He still has time to recommit to fighting earmarks. Congress will return after the election to pass legislation funding the federal government next year.

I recently joined Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and House Republican leaders on a letter asking Speaker Pelosi to keep earmarks out of this omnibus spending bill. A clear statement from the president would go a long way in convincing his congressional allies that now is no time for pork.

Eliminating earmarks isn’t a silver bullet that will balance our budget. They represent only a small portion of the federal budget, but they have a decided impact on the spending process. Some members of Congress support appropriations bills not because they are wisely spending money, but because they contain spending targeted at their district.

Ending the soft bribery of earmarks would help members of Congress concentrate on the substantive issues of funding our federal government. Given our current deficits, we shouldn’t let earmarks distract from the hard work of balancing the budget.

Rep. Joe Pitts represents Pennsylvania’s Sixteenth Congressional District.