Watch For The Return Of Congressional Earmarks

Bill Frezza Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute
Font Size:

Huzzah, the Republicans have gained control of both houses of Congress! The era of Big Government is finally coming to an end!

Just kidding, folks. Putting your faith in politicians’ ode to small government is truly the triumph of hope over experience.

Thomas Jefferson is said to have opined to his friend and rival Alexander Hamilton that the British System was the best system of governance ever developed, except for the corruption. Hamilton’s reply? “Oh no, my friend. It’s the corruption that makes it work.”

Welcome to the new Washington, same as it ever was.

The power of the purse, subject only to President Obama’s lame duck veto, has now been delivered to Old Bull McConnell and his trusty sidekick Business-as-Usual Boehner. With Tea Party mavericks’ influence vastly diluted by the GOP’s lopsided victory, the smart money is on the spending spigots soon returning to their wide-open settings. It’s fun playing the Party of No when you are in the minority, but after you finally claw your way back to pole position to dispense the goodies, the temptation to do so usually proves irresistible.

But won’t the Democrats put up a fight to maintain fiscal sanity? Can’t we count on President Obama to hold the line on the budget? When you stop laughing at those absurd propositions, ask yourself: What will it take to keep Congress from reverting to form trying to buy its way back into Americans’ good graces.

A clear sign that the answer to the question above is “nothing” will be when the new Congress officially repeals the inconvenient moratorium on the dispensation of legislative earmarks. The deeply entrenched practice of doling out money to favored constituents in return for campaign contributions and electoral support was an incumbent insurance program long beloved by both parties. While the total amount of money dispensed through earmarks pales in comparison to the entitlement machine that threatens to bankrupt the country, such targeted giveaways are a symptom of the dreaded disease that afflicts every democracy — the desire to work the levers of power in order to live at the expense of others.

For the politicians, it’s a great deal. They’ve long exploited other people’s money to buy inter-party comity in Washington. The entrenched GOP leadership is well versed in conducting this kind of business, and their Democratic counterparts are not shy about demanding their fair share of the spoils. Lubricating legislation through the addition of riders that spread the pork around may be the ugly part of legislative sausage-making, but that’s how things get done. Want to build a Teapot Museum in North Carolina? A Turtle Tunnel in Florida? Got a nice solar company that needs financing? Add a dash of this and a pinch of that and all of a sudden a bogged down $900 million dollar spending bill starts moving again.

A few years ago I described in detail how to buy a million dollar earmark. A scale business, I was shocked to learn that it cost only $20,000 to rent a Senator and a mere $10,000 to rent a Congressman using a well-oiled “application” process virtually guaranteed to hand you taxpayer money to use as you please. I was a little less shocked when my exposé generated a big yawn. These practices were apparently common knowledge in Washington. My story, from 2008, was “old news” by the time I worked up the nerve to write about it, naming names, in 2012. And besides, by then tightwad Tea Party zealots had shamed Congress into passing an earmark moratorium.

That was then. Watch what happens now.

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the host of RealClear Radio Hour.