NPR logo The Real Problem With Earmarks And Congress

The Real Problem With Earmarks And Congress

John Murtha, the legendary Pennsylvania Democrat who dominated House decisions on defense spending, died suddenly last month; and with him may have passed the Golden Age of the Earmark.

The earmark was a favorite device of Murtha and a generation of members eager to funnel federal resources to meet the needs of the people back home. It was especially popular among members of the appropriations committees, and at times the resources went to private companies that also made campaign contributions. Sometimes those beneficiaries had other connections to the members, through business or family or political relationships.

Often decried by Republicans in the past, earmarking actually increased substantially after the GOP captured the congressional majorities in the 1990s. This fact was often cited among the ethics exposures of the Republican majority when it was dethroned in 2006.

Since then the issue of earmarking, especially the sneakier versions subject to little notice and less review, has become part of the assault on the restored Democratic majority in Congress. Republican Sen. John McCain made it a hallmark of his campaign for president in 2008.

This month, with the House ethics committee sorting through various cases of alleged corruption in earmarking — and with House Democrats eager to counter the bad optics of freshman Rep. Eric Massa's flameout on unrelated issues — new efforts to rein in the earmark have emerged.

Rep. David Obey, the venerable chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Norm Dicks, the successor to Murtha as chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said there would be no more earmarks on behalf of for-profit companies. House Republicans, not to be outdone, countered by saying there should be a moratorium on earmarks of all kinds, including those for nonprofits, schools or other governmental entities.

Do they mean it? Many believe Congress will find other ways of pipelining money to favored constituencies, ways that don't meet the appropriators' definition of earmarks or that appear in bills passed by other committees. Would the transportation committees stop deciding which road and bridge projects were in line for federal money? Don't count on it.

Few think Congress will permanently abandon its commitment to directing the funds it spends to the beneficiaries it holds most dear. And the larger question is whether it should.

Is it wrong for Congress and its elected members to weigh in on the spending of billions of discretionary dollars? Surely the American spirit of populism will not be pleased to have all such decisions made by faceless bureaucrats or soulless computers.

The function of the earmark comes close to the basic notion of representative government. Sure, we care about how our congressman votes on the big bills and philosophical questions. But we also want to know what he's done for us lately. And a new school or post office in our district has the great virtue of being visible. It means jobs. It means we see our tax dollars at work. It means we matter.

The question also highlights the heart of the contradiction in Americans' relationship to their Congress. We may not like the stories we read about pork barreling, but we the voters still expect our representatives to bring home the bacon. And woe to those who fail.

We want everyone else to be reasonable, just as soon as we've got ours. And we're pretty sure we've seen a lot of other places getting theirs ahead of us.

The same sensibility informs the basic instructions Americans give Congress on budget and spending in general. We want them to balance the budget but also to vote for tax cuts, and never ever to cut Medicare or Social Security or defense spending or any program that benefits someone we know.

Most of these men and women then come to Washington and do as they're told. That's why the vast majority of them get re-elected over and over. And it's also the reason that their cumulative votes produce the trillions in debt we have now and will lead to worse in years ahead.

Some years ago, a newspaper comic strip character named Pogo earned a following as an Everyman who uttered profundities in an almost offhanded way. Among his most quoted was: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

The problem with the Congress we elect to represent us is that it does so. Congress is us, being our most magnanimous and our most selfish selves.

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