Its earmark season on Capitol Hill, and this year, thanks to technology, it will be even easier for members of Congress to get their earmark requests sorted out and submitted. It's true that some members, most recently Rep. Henry Waxman of California, say they won't be asking for any earmarks this year, but others are essentially holding an open house. Since earmark requests are due by mid-March, some representatives have put up online forms so constituents and lobbyists can suggest projects to be earmarked. That's what we like about Congress -- always on the cutting edge.
Defenders of the new online forms imply they make the process more "transparent" - although this probably isn't what most good government reformers had in mind.
The idea behind transparency is that the people doing the deed have to be embarrassed about what's being made transparent. But many politicians are proud of their prowess on earmarks. Senators Robert Byrd and Ted Stevens revel in their ability to bring home the bacon. Byrd was long ago tagged the "King of Pork" in Washington, and that might have bothered another man. Not Byrd. "They don't know how much I enjoy it," he said, in much the same tone Robert Duvall used to describe the smell of napalm in the morning. At least one House member, Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, has kindly built a Google Earth mashup to show off where the earmarks are in his district. He wouldn't be bragging about his take if he thought the voters would hold it against him.
President Bush, of course, is threatening to veto any spending bills with earmarks included this fall, but he seems to define earmarks as something only Congress does. But the White House serves pork too, and the President's budget request includes dozens of items benefiting very specific projects and groups - items that have the look and feel of earmarks.
Earmarks infuriate voters, unless of course they live right down the street from the Lawrence Welk Museum or happen to be one of the 7,500 Floridians who benefit from a $50 million earmark for bridge repairs (don't do the math; it's way too depressing). But how much does all this really matter, in financial terms? Estimates vary. The White House Office of Management and Budget says there were about $16.8 billion in earmarks in the 2008 budget, while Taxpayers for Common Sense counts $18.3 billion. To a normal American family, it's a fortune. In a budget expected to top $3 trillion, it's small change.
And for all the angst earmarks cause reformers, getting rid of them will do very little to balance the country's books. This coming year, the projected deficit is about $400 billion. Maybe we should just learn to live with earmarks, the way other cultures accept that creepy-crawly creatures are part of nature, while Americans race around the house screaming and shooting off cans of Raid.
Why bother combating the DC earmark trade? Trust, to put it bluntly. Every teapot museum, every bridge to nowhere, every grant to protect the generally non-endangered wild turkey erodes the public's trust in the government's ability to spend money wisely.
When our organization, Public Agenda, conducted focus groups about the federal budget, we found that once the moderator presented even a rudimentary picture of the country's budget problems, people grasped the gist pretty quickly. Most were eager to talk about solutions. Most were willing to compromise. Most accepted that spending cuts and tax hikes would both be necessary to get the country back on some sensible financial track.
What galled them, however, was the idea that they would be sending more of their hard-earned dollars to Washington while their so-called leaders frittered them away on pet projects designed mainly to get them reelected. Nobody wants to be a sucker. And very few Americans are going to be willing to pay more or get less so DC insiders can continue to lard their districts with pork.
Yeah, you say, but they're just fine with pork if it's going to their hometown. And there's some truth in that. But like the hapless home buyers who signed their names to subprime mortgages virtually certain to drag them deeply into debt, most Americans still don't understand how bad the country's finances really are.
If Americans knew that every single one of these pet projects is being charged on the national credit card and added to the country's $9 trillion debt, we suspect even the local beneficiaries would be appalled.
And it's an absolute cinch that our daunting budget problems can't be solved without public trust. Until the earmark trade is in retreat, public trust will be in short supply.