Friday, February 17, 2006

Down With Earmarks

Tonight's edition of Now, on PBS, was about Congressional earmarks. If you missed it, you can read about the issues on the PBS web site.

The Now report made me sick.

We've been watching the Abramoff scandal unfold where a lobbyist is accused of buying votes and influence. Instead of voting for issues based on merit, some legislators may be selling their votes to the highest bidder. One of the ways to pay back a lobbyist is to slip an earmark into a bill, often when no one is looking. An earmark is a targeted appropriation. How can you slip something into a bill when no one is looking? You needed to see the Now report.

What we learned this evening is that a similar kind of unprincipled trading of votes for favors by a few is taking place all the time in the Senate and House by almost all members. The leadership in Congress buys votes by giving individual legislators money from the budget to spend in any way they like, usually for projects in their districts. The Senator or Representative then have earmarks added to bills to designate exactly how "their" money will be spent. For example, someone in the leadership says, "Vote for X and we'll give you 50 million dollars in the new highway bill that you can earmark anyway you like." Or in the case of the Alaskan Bridge To Nowhere, 1.5 billion! The money that the Congressman or Senator gets to earmark and spend in his district buys votes in the next election. As was pointed out in the Now broadcast, would it be better to spend 1.5 billion dollars for a bridge to nowhere or spend that 1.5 billion dollars to rebuild the Lake Ponchatrain bridge badly damaged by hurricane Katrina? The Senate decided Alaska needed its bridge more than New Orleans. In the case of the Bridge To Nowhere, the public was at least aware of this travesty thanks to a Oklahoman Senator Tom Coburn.

Trading favors is not new and will continue to happen, but the current incarnation of this bartering is obscene. Most Senators and Congressmen trade votes for future political success and the currency is earmarks in last minute hidden legislation.

Many earmarks happen in the dead of night when no one is watching. Some powerful Senators or Representatives can slip legislation into a bill at the last minute. Although there are rules that require all parts of a bill be made public at least three days before the bill is voted on, that rule is frequently broken. Legislators often find that they have voted for something they never knew was in the bill.

Write your Senators and Representatives and insist that all legislation, including the earmarks, be made public at least three working days before they are voted on. A Senator or Representative should never have to vote on legislation that they or their staff have not had time to review. While that only seems like common sense, that is not what is happening now. Also, all earmarks should be required to include the name of the legislator who proposed it. Another idea is to allow points of order against individual provisions in conference reports that were not contained in either the House or Senate version of the bill (see Power Struggle Over Pork by Jonathan Allen for a better description of these ideas).

Not only will these proposals help stop corruption from outside, like from lobbyists, it might weaken the strangle hold that the political parties now have (see my post Goodbye, Karl) and allow legislators to vote their conscience and not just what the party requires.

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