Reform spending, control debt and ban earmarks (Sen. Mark Udall)

There was a time not long after President Clinton left office that we actually enjoyed a budget surplus, but that was before Vice President Dick Cheney famously said that “deficits don’t matter” and the administration of George W. Bush (with significant support from Congress) plunged the country into a sea of red ink.

When the economy was good, deficits didn’t seem to matter, but it’s clear to everyone now that unprecedented deficit spending threatens our long-term economic prosperity as well as our national security. We cannot continue to borrow from the Chinese and expect a strong dollar to spur economic innovation and growth at home.

Eventually, our deficit spending will undermine the very economic growth we need to ensure a better future for our kids. Tackling the deficit monster means we’ll have to make very hard choices, including cuts in programs and changes to entitlements.

That’s why I was dismayed, but not entirely surprised, by the howl of protests that greeted recent comments by the co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. I may not agree with everything they proposed, but it’s important that we let this commission make its recommendations and not dismiss them out-of-hand for partisan or ideological reasons.

I also believe that we cannot emerge from the dark hole we’ve dug for ourselves unless each of us in Congress takes ownership of the problem and agrees to pitch in to solve it. I've long pushed for line-item veto authority, and pay-as-you-go spending. But we can’t just continue to talk about these reforms. We need to take action.

And that’s why I joined a growing chorus of leaders on both sides of the aisle in Congress this week to end the practice known as earmarking.

Earmarks are a tiny fraction of money we spend each year, it’s true – less than one percent of the federal budget, or $16 billion last year, according to watchdogs. It’s also true that many earmarks are worthwhile – even necessary – projects. But because they’re inserted in spending bills by lawmakers, circumventing the budgeting process, they’re both a symptom and a source of the spending problem in Congress.

Members of Congress become so focused on protecting their own pet projects that they feel pressured not to speak up about their colleagues’ spending habits. As a result, earmarks are partly to blame for the lack of oversight necessary to ensure that the remaining 99 percent of the federal budget is well spent.

Over the years I’ve championed earmarks for projects that provided employment and supported good works in Colorado. I don’t regret that. But toward the end of my time in the House of Representatives I began to see that earmarks were crowding out the accountability we needed in the appropriations process.

That feeling led me, in 2007, to begin a self-imposed moratorium on earmarks. And it’s why this week, I decided not only that I won’t seek earmarks, but that I’ll work to put an end to them.

I couldn’t make this decision if I weren’t also convinced that Colorado will continue to receive its share of federal support. Less than two percent of the federal dollars coming to Colorado are through earmarks. I can do a much more effective job of helping Colorado communities if I and my staff devote our time to advocating for the resources – and spending scrutiny – through the normal budgeting process. My office also will redouble its efforts to help Coloradans compete for federal grants.

Ultimately, I believe that Colorado families – and all Americans – are the ones who will be hurt if we don’t begin now to reform spending and control the debt. We’ll have many more opportunities to address this in the coming months and years, but banning earmarks is a place to begin.

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