Congress should return to responsible earmark policy

When two distinguished octogenarians, Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) and former House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.), passed away on October 18, 2013, it reminded us of a bygone era where dignity, seniority and orderly Congressional operations were largely standard. 

In 1995, when Congress changed to a Republican majority, it imposed term limits on committee chairmen. Then in 2010, Congress outlawed earmarks on appropriations bills.  Congress had "democratized" itself, in response to public demand, but the unintended consequence was that members could become purist legislators who largely disdained compromise, resisted seniority and refused Congressional earmarks.  In the aftermath of the recent 16-day government shutdown and with Congressional and presidential approval ratings at new lows, it's time to return to a measured and responsible earmark policy.

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At recent meetings in Amsterdam, a European official offered me this comment about the government shutdown melodrama.  "America embarrassed itself in the eyes of the world. That spectacle was beneath what is expected of the United States."

I couldn't disagree.

When former President Ronald Reagan (R) and former House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) famously debated policy during the day, and drank Irish whiskey together after hours, they reached policy agreements because O' Neill could go back to his House Democratic majority and demand "yes" votes on compromises reached to move America forward.  O' Neill could threaten recalcitrant Democrats with losing the earmarks they sponsored and treasured. He could also control members' committee assignments, a powerful incentive for members to support reasoned leadership decisions. Reagan gladly accepted 80 percent victories--he didn't need 100 percent, with the Democrats receiving nothing. Tom Foley and Bill Young matured and flourished in their Congressional careers under that system.

Today, new representatives and senators come to office dismissive of compromise and critical of earmarks, blaming both for America's dire economic condition. I agree that past earmark policy sometimes offended the senses and resulted in wasteful federal spending in spite of Congressional oversight, but it's Congress' job to eliminate such waste.  Without regular oversight hearings, Appropriations Committee markups, conference committees or a federal budget, uncontrolled spending adds to the deficit and debt. Citizens Against Government Waste calculated in 2010 that earmarks accounted for less than one half of one percent of the federal budget.  The federal Office of Management and Budget calculated that earmarks amounted to a measly one-third of one percent.

When I served Washington State's 5th District as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I defended earmarks as a legitimate way of returning some federal taxes to the district from which they came.  That was much better than having the federal government decide what was best for Eastern Washington.  When I ran against Foley in 1994, I criticized earmarks that had taxpayers paying for "midnight basketball" or other clearly non-federal responsibilities. After being elected, I sponsored an earmark for valuable research to help farmers in my district combat "karnal bunt" wheat disease. That made Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) "pork" list, probably because of the earmark's funny name.

Standard and Poor's recently calculated that this year's 16-day government shutdown cost the U.S. economy $24 billion.  If true, that's much more than the total cost of all earmarks in 2010. 

Having supported the government shutdowns in 1995-96, I can testify that shutdowns rarely work. Tea Party-supported representatives and senators who led this year's shutdown didn't secure a lower federal deficit or Congressional reform.  Returning to a responsible earmarking policy and respecting the wisdom that oftentimes accompanies seniority and adherence to committee jurisdictions and regular legislative actions could bring order to the strife and underperformance that now exist. New members wouldn't like it, but it might avoid the gunslinger, self-serving mentality that some elected officials employ which destroys public confidence in the federal government.

Today, some in government want the opposition to be winless.  If they don't get 100 percent of what they or their supporters want, they're fearful of primary opposition at home or damage to their historical legacy.  Elected officials must have the courage to move America forward.  Oftentimes that means compromise victories are required.  Some proudly take the "no-earmark" pledge, fight to the death on issues for which they don't have the votes and, as with the recent shutdown, cost their loyal constituents even more. Charismatic, but inexperienced, leaders should always think of America first.  If they don't, taxpayers and important institutions of government suffer.

Tom Foley and Bill Young were giants in their time. Their wisdom, dignity and sense of fairness made them special.

And they supported earmarks.

Nethercutt represented Washington’s 5th Congressional District from 1995 to 2005.