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The Candy Store Congress

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When Congress negotiated passage of the bailout bill earlier this month, close observers noted the addition of $150 billion in taxpayer goodies unrelated to rescuing faltering financial institutions.

Apparently legislators rightly sensed that the bill would pass the second time around and so added hundreds of pages of extra goodies. Many of these came in the form of special funding and tax break provisions for specific projects that had little or nothing to do with healing the crippled financial markets. And so there, in the rescue package we find a $49 million tax benefit for plaintiffs in the lawsuit arising from the 1989 tanker Exxon Valdez spill, a $100 million tax break to benefit automobile racetrack owners, $192 million in rebates on excise taxes for the Puerto Rican and Virgin Islands rum industry, $148 million in tax relief for U.S. wool fabric producers and a $2 million tax benefit for makers of wooden arrows for children. (Wooden arrows for children?) In the rush to salvage the collapsing economy, lawmakers had little opportunity to gauge the merit of these add-ons.

Hiding funding for pet projects in larger legislation is, of course, business as usual in Congress. But there are numerous consequences of this kind of legislating, not least of which is the perversion of the deliberative process. And, the massive give-away approach to legislating, helps spare representative's accountability for bad decisions; who, exactly, is to blame for a collection of costly tax breaks attached to a bill with sweeping support?

Earmarks are a direct outgrowth of the money chase in Congress. Lawmakers rely on wealthy interests to support their campaigns and so work to curry favor from those who will ensure a steady flow of cash enriches their campaign coffers. It is no coincidence that those who benefit from earmarks tend to support lawmakers who are in the best position, by virtue of their status or committee positions, to dole them out.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the use of earmarks increased five-fold from 1996 to 2005. But despite the constant recurrence of the subject in the presidential debates, earmarks are only one small aspect of a larger legislative failure to grapple with complex issues.

A fundamental restructuring of the political economy in Washington is needed to ensure that members of Congress act in the best interests of constituents, and not just the wealthy and well-connected interests that fund their campaigns. An obvious solution is already under consideration, and should be made a priority by the next Congress.

The Fair Elections Now Act would establish a voluntary system of comprehensive public financing for Congressional elections and would reduce the threat of special interest cash by establishing strict spending limits; plus it would encourage small donors and greatly increase the power of ordinary voters to hold Congress accountable.

The program would cost only a quarter of one percent of the President's 2008 budget proposal, under $2 billion. Compare that number to $70 to $100 billion -- the amount of taxes dodged by American corporations that use off-shore tax schemes -- and it looks like the bargain for taxpayers that it is. As the past weeks have shown, it is far too costly for Americans to maintain a political system that doesn't put voters and ordinary citizens first. Now more than ever, Americans need a Congress that works.