Lemonade Lessons: Banning earmarks — not just symbolic

Janie Johnson Contributor
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The problem with earmarks is not just their cost, or even the revealing of the weak character of legislators and their lack of adherence to first principles that often devolves into a form of “legalized” corruption.

Sadly, these character flaws are often on full display. Every legislator knows that the actual financial cost of an earmark is just the tip of the iceberg. The true cost of this unsavory practice is not just the bridges to nowhere or the nonsensical studies of the sexual habits of turtles; it is the cost related to the legislative vote that was bought.

Reluctant or conniving legislators can often be “bribed” into supporting much larger and more damaging legislation with the gift of a seemingly immaterial earmark that will provide funding for a local project important to a big voting bloc or a large campaign contributor.

It is notable that so many legislators are comfortable with the notion that they and their votes can be bought. Rationales abound.

Supporters of earmarks begin by pointing out that the cost of earmarks, as compared to the national budget, is largely irrelevant. But no logic exists in this defense. Is it right for a thief to steal $100 from someone who has $1,000,000? If it is wrong, it is wrong.

Another rationale is that earmarks are legal. This is an equally illogical argument. If this backroom practice is unethical, does it make it right if it is constitutionally allowed? Do these supporters actually think that finding a loophole in the Constitution or in a specific regulation or law justifies their lack of ethics and transparency?

Supporters of earmark practices also like to point out that some earmarked projects actually contribute to society in very positive ways (i.e., special schools, needed hospitals, etc.). Does this fact, even if true, justify the lack of debate without public hearing, and the middle-of-the-night chicanery often associated with earmarks? If these claims are true, then why must they be accomplished out of sight?

The weakest of all the earmark rationales is the argument that this is the process that creates majorities on difficult issues, or this is the art of legislative compromise. Our founders did not intend for legislators to sell their votes or to abandon their principles for the sake of compromise, reelection, payback to campaign contributors, or any other reason. Neither do the American public.

To be fair, there has been some recent progress relating to the earmark process. Lawmakers must now post requested earmarks on their websites and certify they have no financial interest in those earmarks they present. They must also explain the purpose and value of each requested earmark.

What earmarks do not do (even with these new provisions) is recognize that our country has limited resources. Therefore, every spending project or initiative needs to be measured against all other proposed and existing spending. There is just not enough money to pay for everything that any legislator or citizen might support. Choices must be made based on agreed-upon priorities.

Earmarks are legislative perks to senior elected politicians. Members of congressional committees that oversee spending get most of them. Can this allocation of resources really reflect their merits? I think not.

Senior career politicians naturally do not want to give up these perks. They accuse all of us average citizens of just not understanding the sophisticated legislative process. They say that all government spending is political and that earmarks just make the process more reflective of the people’s needs. They ask the question of who knows better than the elected representative about what is needed and necessary.

Any list of earmarks answers that question. The lack of debate and avoidance of public hearings by themselves are reasons enough to ban this practice. It is not the job of our legislators to make decisions or pass laws behind our backs. American citizens have a right to demand transparency. The government still works for the people, not vice versa.

Earmarks have been rightfully called a “gateway drug” that leads to broader mismanagement of public finances. This point was well made in a recent article in The Economist by Dave Simonds. No, banning earmarks is not just symbolic, it is a necessary step to educating our elected politicians that “we the people” are still in charge, and they are still public servants, not elitist rule-makers.

Janie Johnson is the author of Don’t Take My Lemonade Stand – An American Philosophy.