‘Reform’ To Nowhere

How the crusade against earmarks threatens constitutional democracy.

David Sirota April 27, 2009

I had nev­er heard of an ice sled before. 

In the age of the imperial presidency, we have witnessed an assault on Congress’s power of the purse.

I had heard of ice, had always want­ed to see the Idi­tar­od race, and had been briefly obsessed with Olympic luge com­pe­ti­tions. But sev­en years ago, if you had forced me to guess what an ice sled was, I’d prob­a­bly con­jec­ture that it was an obscure vehi­cle from the first snowy vis­tas of Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. And if you asked me what one was doing in the fed­er­al bud­get, I, like most of know-noth­ing Wash­ing­ton, might have told you it was a waste­ful” local spend­ing project insert­ed by a mem­ber of Con­gress – one of those awful” earmarks.

That is, until I dis­cov­ered that it was an ear­mark from the guy who employed me, Rep. David Obey (D‑Wis.).

As press sec­re­tary for Obey’s Appro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee in 2002, I learned more in a few months about emer­gency ice sleds and their life-sav­ing import in the Arc­tic tier of Amer­i­ca (typ­i­cal­ly defined as any place north of Chica­go) than most win­ter-loathing sons of the rel­a­tive­ly tem­per­ate Mid-Atlantic states ever do. 

I also learned why the attempt to ban Congress’s right to ear­mark-spend­ing bills is anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic and destructive.

The argot of mer­i­to­crat­ic technocracy

In 2002, Pres­i­dent Bush decid­ed to try to make the ice sled – specif­i­cal­ly, the fed­er­al­ly fund­ed one in Ash­land, Wis. – the poster child for gov­ern­ment waste. 

In a first for fed­er­al bud­gets, a col­or pho­to of an ice sled is fea­tured in Bush’s 2003 bud­get plan,” read a lengthy USA Today sto­ry that not­ed the pic­ture was designed as Bush’s stern rebuke of all the local projects law­mak­ers insert into the bud­get every year.”

The pres­i­dent want­ed a tan­gi­ble tar­get to ridicule in order to jus­ti­fy his broad­er alle­ga­tions that, a) gov­ern­ment spend­ing ini­tia­tives – espe­cial­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic-backed ones – are inher­ent­ly waste­ful, and that b) all con­gres­sion­al ear­marks must be banned.

The first claim was – and still is – a tried-and-true tac­tic in Repub­li­cans’ broad­er attack on social spend­ing. Under­stand­ing the cul­tur­al and geo­graph­ic igno­rance of the nation­al press corps to regions out­side the Belt­way, the GOP selects local projects that sound absurd to the untrained ear and thus can be eas­i­ly ridiculed by pithy – and mis­lead­ing – headlines. 

In the ice sled’s case, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion fig­ured it could car­i­ca­ture Obey’s ear­mark as a hilar­i­ous boon­dog­gle that would make the Pentagon’s leg­endary $600 toi­lets look pos­i­tive­ly practical.

This line of attack is fair­ly sim­ple to debunk – that is, if an ear­mark is, in fact, sub­stan­tive, and if the media are inter­est­ed in any­thing more than sen­sa­tion­al­ism. (Both gen­uine ifs.”)

When Bush unleashed his attack on Obey’s ice sled, for exam­ple, we called on local police offi­cers who recount­ed deaths and near-deaths on Lake Supe­ri­or and Ash­land County’s frozen lakes that the ice sled would now pre­vent. After first laugh­ing at what seemed to be an $80,000 Flex­i­ble Fly­er, reporters who both­ered to inves­ti­gate learned that it was a much-need­ed tool for North­ern Wisconsin’s first respon­ders. USA Today and oth­er nation­al news out­lets sub­se­quent­ly filled their sto­ries with this com­pelling jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the project.

The oth­er facet of the Bush administration’s argu­ment, how­ev­er, has proven more persistent. 

While most indi­vid­ual ear­marks pass muster upon close scruti­ny, pres­i­dents por­tray the ear­mark­ing process as fun­da­men­tal­ly cor­rupt. Of course, if the last decade of no-bid con­tracts to cam­paign con­trib­u­tors, bun­gled bailouts and hege­mon­ic politi­ciza­tion of the fed­er­al bureau­cra­cy teach­es any­thing, it is that exec­u­tive branch spend­ing deci­sions are not inher­ent­ly less polit­i­cal or less cor­rupt than leg­isla­tive branch decisions. 

And yet, anti-ear­mark­ing rhetoric from White Hous­es of both par­ties is effec­tive. A pub­lic already sus­pi­cious of gov­ern­ment effi­cien­cy loves the argot of blue-rib­bon mer­i­toc­ra­cy and empir­i­cal tech­noc­ra­cy, even if it is absurd – even if it obscures pres­i­dents’ ulte­ri­or motive: to accrue as much pow­er as possible. 

Under­min­ing the pow­er of the purse

Arti­cle I, Sec­tion 9 of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion says, No mon­ey shall be drawn from the Trea­sury, but in con­se­quence of appro­pri­a­tions made by law.” 

This sen­tence cements what is now con­sid­ered one of the pil­lars of mod­ern con­sti­tu­tion­al democ­ra­cy: bestow­ing the pow­er of the purse in a government’s leg­is­la­ture. The prin­ci­ple is based on the belief that spend­ing (and tax­ing) is the ulti­mate exer­cise of state pow­er, and there­fore that author­i­ty should be vest­ed in the leg­is­la­ture – the branch of gov­ern­ment most demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly account­able and local­ly con­nect­ed to the public.

But that very prin­ci­ple is an affront to White House pow­er. And in the age of the impe­r­i­al pres­i­den­cy, we have wit­nessed an assault on Congress’s pow­er of the purse. As the Iraq War and the Wall Street bailouts have shown, exec­u­tives can now eas­i­ly coerce the leg­isla­tive branch into hand­ing over tril­lion-dol­lar blank checks with­out fear of over­sight. In that sense, our gov­ern­ment is already far more author­i­tar­i­an and less demo­c­ra­t­ic than it was a half-cen­tu­ry ago.

One of the few remain­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al hold­outs is the ear­mark­ing process, which lets indi­vid­ual law­mak­ers direct the exec­u­tive branch to spend tax­pay­er mon­ey in explic­it ways. Though the sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic media try to imply that local projects make up most of the fed­er­al bud­get, the truth is that ear­marks make up less than 2 per­cent of all fed­er­al expenditures.

Nonethe­less, that’s 2 per­cent less uni­lat­er­al pow­er for a pres­i­dent. And so, out of Bush’s 2002 anti-ear­mark jihad comes a new era in which talk of ban­ning all ear­marks dom­i­nates the pres­i­den­tial dis­course in both parties. 

Dur­ing the 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, for instance, Repub­li­can nom­i­nee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) staked his cam­paign on a belief that Amer­i­cans would see the elim­i­na­tion of con­gres­sion­al ear­marks as the sin­gle most pow­er­ful solu­tion to the glob­al eco­nom­ic meltdown. 

Now, emerg­ing from the ash­es of that cam­paign is a new gen­er­a­tion of con­ser­v­a­tive blogs, such as Nex​tRight​.com, pub­lish­ing screeds about Why We Need to Ban Ear­marks.” They deride these projects as mini-bailouts” for local com­mu­ni­ties and insist that an anti-ear­mark stand is a polit­i­cal win­ner for Repub­li­cans.” (Repub­li­cans, it must be not­ed, not only over­saw a four-fold increase in total ear­marks, but also engi­neered Jack Abramoff’s ear­mark cor­rup­tion scandals.)

Like­wise, one of Pres­i­dent Obama’s first dec­la­ra­tions as he entered office was a promise to ban all ear­marks” in eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus leg­is­la­tion. And upon sign­ing the last bud­get bill left­over from Bush’s term, he deliv­ered a speech derid­ing ear­marks and promis­ing an end to the old way of doing business.”

At a time of explod­ing bud­get deficits and fresh mem­o­ries of ear­mark-relat­ed cor­rup­tion scan­dals, this rhetoric can sound con­vinc­ing. Indeed, the prospect of an end to the old way of doing busi­ness” sounds pos­i­tive­ly refresh­ing – until you con­sid­er that ear­marks rep­re­sent the kind of old way of doing busi­ness” that is enshrined in the Con­sti­tu­tion and pro­tects our democracy. 

The right kind of reform

The cur­rent ear­mark­ing process isn’t per­fect. Abramoff’s suc­cess in trad­ing cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions for shad­owy ear­marks proves that there is ample room for reform that can pre­serve the legislature’s pow­er of the purse and stop abuse – the kind of reform, in fact, that is already underway.

In Jan­u­ary, Roll Call news­pa­per report­ed that House Appro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Obey and Sen­ate Appro­pri­a­tions Chair­man Daniel Inouye (D‑Hawaii) have joint­ly vowed to slice the lev­el of ear­marks” while requir­ing law­mak­ers to post the requests on their web­sites explain­ing the pur­pose of the ear­mark and why it is a valu­able use of tax­pay­er funds.” 

If crit­ics real­ly believe Bridge to Nowhere” waste is the big prob­lem in ear­mark­ing, and if ear­mark waste is most often cre­at­ed by law­mak­ers who anony­mous­ly insert projects into spend­ing bills, then stricter trans­paren­cy is one way to sub­stan­tive­ly reform the process while pre­serv­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al principles. 

Pri­or to these reforms, a leg­is­la­tor could put an inde­fen­si­bly waste­ful ear­mark into a bill with­out fear of being ridiculed in the press or by watch­dog groups. Now (assum­ing the reforms have teeth), dis­clo­sure rules would open that leg­is­la­tor up to pub­lic ridicule, hence man­u­fac­tur­ing a pow­er­ful dis­in­cen­tive for abu­sive earmarks.

Sim­i­lar­ly, for ear­mark crit­ics who are sin­cere­ly con­cerned about projects being used as pay-to-play finan­cial rewards to unwor­thy cor­po­rate cam­paign donors, there is Obama’s prag­mat­ic pro­pos­al to bar law­mak­ers from direct­ing ear­marks to for-prof­it com­pa­nies with­out com­pet­i­tive bid­ding,” as The Hill news­pa­per report­ed in March. If a giv­en com­pa­ny is un-deserv­ing of fed­er­al mon­ey and can­not beat out a com­peti­tor, it won’t get the earmark.

Even more com­mend­able reform pro­pos­als exist that would improve the ear­mark­ing process and pro­tect Congress’s con­sti­tu­tion­al pre­rog­a­tives – from mak­ing spend­ing bills Google-search­able to pub­licly financ­ing con­gres­sion­al elec­tions (so as to remove the pos­si­bil­i­ty of cam­paign dol­lars cor­rupt­ing fed­er­al spend­ing decisions). 

And yet, before any of these are enact­ed and test­ed, the drum­beat for a total ear­mark ban continues.

The con­se­quences of a ban

Demo­c­ra­t­ic ideals are borne out of prac­ti­cal­i­ty, not the­o­ry. Tram­ple those ideals, and there are bound to be unpop­u­lar real-world consequences. 

The fact is, either Con­gress or the White House is going to make spe­cif­ic deci­sions about how to spend fed­er­al dol­lars in states and con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts. There­fore, those ide­o­logues who want to under­mine Congress’s pow­er of the purse and ban ear­marks (rather than mere­ly reform­ing the process) are say­ing they believe those deci­sions are made more astute­ly by exec­u­tive branch appointees in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., than by local­ly elect­ed con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives who spend much of their time in their dis­tricts inter­act­ing with constituents. 

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D‑Ore.) made this point dur­ing a recent CNN inter­view. Not­ing that the same con­ser­v­a­tives who decry ear­marks also decry cen­tral­iza­tion of pow­er in Wash­ing­ton, he asked, Is all the wis­dom in this coun­try in the bureau­crats in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., or the polit­i­cal appointees in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.? … No. I rep­re­sent my dis­trict; I know where the needs are. I put mon­ey toward those needs, and I put my name next to them, and I send out press releas­es, and I stand for elec­tion every two years [so] I don’t share [an] aver­sion to earmarks.”

In the same vein, a Con­gress member’s access to the fed­er­al purse via ear­mark­ing often pro­vides com­mu­ni­ties their only way to influ­ence a lob­by­ist-insu­lat­ed gov­ern­ment. In the case of the ice sled, for instance, Ash­land law enforce­ment offi­cials nev­er received a response to the grant-request let­ters they sent to fed­er­al agen­cies. Their only avenue to get the mod­est funds they need­ed was through Obey, their local mem­ber of Con­gress. Had he been barred from try­ing to ear­mark fed­er­al mon­ey, those law enforce­ment offi­cials – like the uncount­able con­stituents in dis­tricts all over the Unit­ed States – would have con­tin­ued to be ignored by the fed­er­al bureaucracy.

This is why mem­bers of Con­gress spend much of their pro­mo­tion­al resources brag­ging about the ear­marks they’ve secured – because local con­stituents want and need local spend­ing projects, and they like to know they have access to fed­er­al spend­ing decisions. 

In that sense, ear­marks are a direct reflec­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tive and respon­sive gov­ern­ment: the pub­lic likes them, and, so, Con­gress cre­ates and pass­es them into law. 

Isn’t that what democ­ra­cy is sup­posed to be about? 

Tasty brats and cheese

Almost sev­en years after I learned every­thing I ever want­ed to learn about emer­gency ice sleds, I hap­pened to be watch­ing mid­day MSNBC when net­work cor­re­spon­dent Norah O’Donnell began inter­view­ing Wis­con­sin Gov. Jim Doyle about today’s renewed push to ban ear­marks. After O’Donnell berat­ed a project to mit­i­gate the envi­ron­men­tal impact of cor­po­rate hog farms on local com­mu­ni­ties as tax­pay­er mon­ey going to pig odor research,” she demand­ed to know why Doyle didn’t want all ear­marks eliminated.

Doyle des­per­ate­ly tried to explain how sig­nif­i­cant fac­to­ry farms are in the Mid­west­ern econ­o­my, and thus how impor­tant the mit­i­ga­tion ear­mark was to small town Amer­i­ca. But O’Donnell only respond­ed with deri­sion and disbelief.

One man’s trash is anoth­er man’s trea­sure,” she said, before feign­ing some forced Amer­i­cana in her sign off, adding, Best to you in Wis­con­sin, one of my favorite states – I love the brats, I love the cheese.”

For all the sub­stan­tive argu­ments against ban­ning ear­marks – for all of the con­cern about exec­u­tive pow­er grabs, the tram­pling of democ­ra­cy, and the evis­cer­a­tion of the leg­isla­tive branch – the exchange was yet anoth­er reminder that this ear­mark debate still rages in Wash­ing­ton because it is man­u­fac­tured by a cul­tur­al­ly and geo­graph­i­cal­ly iso­lat­ed press corps that wor­ships pres­i­den­tial pow­er, views con­sti­tu­tion­al democ­ra­cy as a joke, and sees the pub­lic as rubes, good for our tasty brats and cheese, but not for our input into crit­i­cal spend­ing decisions. 

That over sim­plis­tic elit­ism – more than even pow­er-hun­gry pres­i­dents or bud­get-cut­ting con­ser­v­a­tives – is what gen­uine­ly threat­ens Congress’s pow­er of the purse, pub­lic access to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and ulti­mate­ly, Amer­i­can democracy. 

David Siro­ta is an award­win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and an In These Times senior edi­tor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 cam­paign. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @davidsirota.
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