Earmarks -- the Rasputin of Congressional budget politics - are back on the scene. If you don't remember your late tsarist Russian history, Rasputin was the "mad monk" with scary eyes, decadent tastes and way too much influence over Tsarina Alexandra. Eventually he was poisoned, shot, beaten, and finally drowned by a group of dissident Russian nobles. He drank enough poison to kill multiple humans and had three bullets in his back, but he still led his killers on a chase through St. Petersburg before they finally caught up with him, clubbed him and threw him in the Neva River. There were even rumors that he sat up during his cremation.
The Congressional earmark industry is proving equally hardy despite repeated attempts to kill or at least weaken it, according to the Washington Post. The current House defense authorization bill contains almost $10 billion dollars of earmarks according to figures compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense. The Senate bill hasn't been approved yet, but Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Chris Dodd (D-CT), Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) Carl Levin (D-MI), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Mark Pryor (D-AR), and Mel Martinez (R-FL) are among those listed as requesting earmarks.
Okay, so we have members from the House and the Senate, from the liberal northeast and the conservative south, men and the women, Democrats, Republicans, an Independent, and what can they finally agree on - the ritual of slipping those tasty little earmarks into the defense budget. And they've agreed to do this when the country is at war and faces a budget deficit approaching half a trillion dollars for this fiscal year.
At least some of this current group of earmarks seems to be connected to actual military activities, although whether the spending is useful for the country is another question. Maybe we should all be grateful that it's not more Teapot Museums and Bridges to Nowhere. Yet, as Robert O'Harrow, Jr's rather harrowing Post article points out, there are some extremely uncomfortable overlaps among earmark sponsors, earmark beneficiaries, and campaign contributions. Big contractors like Northrop Grumman, United Technologies, Lockheed Martin, and Pratt and Whitney are among the companies that would benefit. Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, an earmark opponent, calls the practice, "corrupting. It's a much bigger problem than the sum of its parts. It's much more than just waste." Flake went on to say: "One good earmark can yield tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions."
Texas Democrat Silvestre Reyes got $18,000 in contributions from executives from Digital Fusion, and he is seeking a multi-million dollar earmark for the company. Digital Fusion recently won an award from the Secretary of Defense as the Global War on Terrorism Team of the Year, and an aide in Reyes' office says that "the Congressman's appropriations are carefully vetted to ensure that they are consistent with the needs and interests of his constituency."
Perhaps this work is necessary and worthwhile, but then why wasn't it in the defense budget in the first place? It's not like the defense budget is running lean these days. Overall defense spending has increased dramatically over the past six years, and with two wars going on that's not surprising. But it's also true that the Pentagon has a reputation as a place that will spend whatever it takes to get the job done, and sometimes much, much more. Just a couple weeks ago, Senator Levin said cost overruns at the Pentagon were "reaching crisis proportions," with the Air Force's Joint Strike Fighter alone running 40 percent over budget. The reports on the Defense Department issued by the Government Accountability Office make for depressing reading, not just because of the problems themselves but because they've persisted so long (military weapons purchasing has been on the GAO's list of "high-risk" programs since 1990).
Plus, you have to wonder just who Congressman Reyes sees as his "constituency." The U.S. is more than $9 trillion in debt, and polls show that most Americans don't like earmarking . Americans nationwide are struggling with rising gas and food costs. Communities across the country are suffering from the mortgage meltdown. Maybe the congressman thinks he should only focus on Texans, but you really have to ask exactly how many Texans benefit from a nice, new, not-asked-for by the Defense Department contract for Digital Fusion.
Perhaps the best defense of earmarks is that all of them added up together don't make much of a difference in the country's $3 trillion dollar budget. The best ballpark estimate is that this kind of pork-barrel spending adds up to about $17 billion in 2008, and many budget hawks think that getting upset about them deflects attention from far more serious fiscal problems. It is a pretty small piece of the pie, and maybe some of these earmarks do some good. Somewhere.
Unfortunately, every single one of them was paid for with red ink, and the very worst thing about them is the cynicism and pessimism the practice engenders in the American public. Are elected officials oblivious to that? If they are wondering why public ratings for Congress are so low, this is a clue. In an era when Congress is too divided to balance the budget , reform the country's broken immigration system, craft a long-term energy policy, fix our mishmash of a health care system, or protect Social Security, there is still one area of broad bipartisan agreement -- earmarks will live for yet another day.
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