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The real problem with earmarks

Embarrassing press coverage of members of Congress handing out earmarks to big donors has leaders of both parties scrambling to appear to be guardians of the American taxpayer. The House Democratic leadership proposed banning earmarks to corporations, but still allowing them for non-profit organizations.  Not to be outdone, the House Republican leadership proposed a one-year ban on all earmarks.

The Senate, however, seems to be in no rush to eliminate earmarks. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) proposed what amounts to a two-year ban on earmarks by requiring an extraordinary two-thirds majority to pass any legislation containing earmarks. But on March 16, her fellow senators rejected her amendment by a 2-to-1 majority. So House members can safely denounce the abuse of earmarks knowing that the Senate is unlikely to address the issue this session.

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The problem is not the earmarks themselves, but trading earmarks for campaign contributions.

House members felt compelled to respond to February’s decision by the House ethics committee to clear seven members of Congress who had steered hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid defense contracts to clients of a lobbying firm and then collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from those clients. The committee concluded, “Simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not ... support a claim that a member’s actions are being influenced by campaign contributions.”

Most people would find it hard to believe that big military contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which together steered $4.7 million to members of Congress during the 2008 election cycle, are motivated solely by a sense of civic duty. Of course members of Congress are rewarding their supporters with earmarks, and because it is perfectly legal, the ethics committee found no laws were broken.

Although few abuse the system to the extent of the seven members of Congress cleared by the ethics committee, the refusal by most members to accept a simple legislative solution to pay-to-play earmarks casts a dark cloud over all members of Congress. Exactly one year ago, Congressman Paul Hodes, a second-term Democrat from New Hampshire, offered a bill, the Clean Law for Earmark Accountability Reform Act, that would prohibit a member of Congress from accepting campaign contributions from any company or person who has gotten an earmark from that member. The legislation is very straightforward and would go a long way toward ensuring that government spending decisions are not influenced by lobbyists and campaign contributions.

Few members have rushed to co-sponsor the Hodes bill. So far, Congressman Hodes has gotten only seven Democratic members to sign on as cosponsors and just four Republicans. Not one of the seven members cleared by the ethics committee is a cosponsor, which suggests they felt vindicated, rather than chastened (one member, John Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, died in February).

President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have long railed against the abuse of congressional earmarks, and during the 2008 presidential campaign, both promised to “end business as usual” in Washington if elected. However, neither has endorsed the one piece of legislation that would break the link between earmarks and campaign contributions. Nor have Democratic or Republican leaders in the House signed on to the Hodes legislation, and it has yet to be introduced in the Senate.

Half of all earmarks are attached to military funding bills. They pay for pork-barrel projects that the Pentagon has never requested and in most cases does not want. Earmarks illustrate the extent to which the Pentagon’s budget is no longer just about defense. Rather, it has become a system of corporate welfare driven by jobs and campaign contributions.

Members of Congress from both parties have been lining up to make sanctimonious denunciations of the abuse of earmarks, but until both the House and Senate pass legislation breaking the link between earmarks and campaign contributions, it will continue to be business as usual in Washington.

Edgar, a former member of Congress, is president of Common Cause. Goodfellow is executive director of the Center for International Policy.