Two years ago, Louisiana was hit by Katrina, the most expensive and devastating hurricane in our nation's history. Both the levees and our emergency responders were woefully unprepared, and New Orleans continues to suffer. At the time, while President Bush and Congress were at a loss as to where to find the monies necessary to start the repairs, I wrote an open letter to my representatives in Congress - Messrs Shays, Dodd, and Lieberman - suggesting that Congress give back its earmarks as a down payment on repairing New Orleans.
Earlier in that summer of 2005, Congress had passed an omnibus transportation bill which included over 6,000 earmarks - including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska - but no money to fix levees in New Orleans or bridges in Minnesota.
Last year, during my campaign for US Senate, I argued that earmarks - those specially requested favors which sail through the budget with little public scrutiny - were fueling the culture of corruption in Congress. Jack Abramoff once called Congress an "earmarks favor factory." Back in 1994, Speaker Newt Gingrich saw earmarks as a handy way for vulnerable incumbents to hand out favors to party favorites. The number of earmarks soared from the hundreds, to 4,126 during Gingrich's first year as Speaker, to 15,877 during the Republicans' last year in control of the House and Senate.
Soon after the Democrats took over the House and Senate last November, Republican Senator Ted "Bridge to Nowhere" Stevens confronted fellow Republican Senator Tom "anti-earmark" Coburn: "Well, Tom, I hope you're satisfied for helping us lose the election."
Coburn responded (per his website), "No, Ted, you lost us the election," as Senator Bridge to Nowhere had become the poster boy for the corrosive old-boy network which was so quick to dole out political patronage yet so slow to reinforce the levees in water-soaked New Orleans.
DCCC Chair Rahm Emanuel helped lead the Democrats to victory last November as the party of reform. Last week he wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled, "Don"t Get Rid of Earmarks." In his defense, Congress did recently pass some half-measures which make the earmark process somewhat more transparent. But all these half-measures do is hand the issue right back to Republicans, who gleefully point to earmarks like the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center - bringing the weather-predicting hedgehog to Washington to highlight Congressional mischief.
Democrats were elected to challenge business as usual and propose bold reforms in health care and energy. But if we can't get the little things right, no one will trust us to take on the big issues confronting our country.
On this, the two year anniversary of the devastation of Katrina, I say it again: give it back, give back those corrupting earmarks and finally start rebuilding the levees, rebuilding the communities of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and rebuilding America.
(Originally posted at NedLamont.com.)