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Congress must rid itself of political ‘pork’ to preserve its integrity

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The origin and study of pork-barrel spending, or earmarks, as well as the nature and course of this malady, merits a fresh examination before the release of Citizens Against Government Waste’s annual Congressional Pig Book on July 19.

Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has called earmarks “the gateway drug to spending addiction” and that “restoring earmarks in today’s Congress would be like opening a bar tab for a bunch of recovering alcoholics.”

{mosads}Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig wrote in March 2009, “Earmarks are a cancer: Not because they consume a large part of the budget — they don’t; not because we shouldn’t be spending money — we should. But because they feed the system of corruption that is the way Washington works.”


One would have thought that earmarks would remain in remission following the adoption of the moratorium on such projects that began in fiscal year 2011. But if some members of Congress prevail, earmarks will not only recur, they will grow quickly and spread throughout the federal budget.

The early warning signs of a relapse occurred just eight days after the Nov. 8, 2016 “drain the swamp” election, when the House Republican Conference failed to renew the moratorium for the first time since it was first adopted.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) postponed the vote after several members proposed a “modification” to restore earmarks for certain types of projects. While the House has yet to take any action, Senate Republicans unanimously agreed in January to extend the moratorium for the 115th Congress.

The co-conspirators to revive earmarks are Reps. John Culberson (R-Texas), Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.). They are being fought off by House Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) and other members who were either present during the earmark epidemic, or understand the politically fatal consequences of this practice.

The modern earmarking process began in the mid-1970s, when the “father of earmarks,” Gerald Cassidy, procured his first pork-barrel project for a client. In 1991, CAGW issued the first Congressional Pig Book, which contained 546 projects costing $3.1 billion.

In 1996, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) became the “prime purveyor of pork” when his infamous policy memo to the House Appropriations subcommittee chairs asked them to consider, among other factors, “Are there any Republican members who could be severely hurt by the bill or need a specific district item in the bill?”

That was the beginning of the use of pork-barrel projects as political currency. The earmark spending frenzy reached its crescendo in fiscal year 2006, when Congress approved $29 billion in earmarks in the appropriations bills. That occurred one year after the infamous $223 million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska was included among the $24.8 billion in earmarks in the 2005 highway bill.

Since more than two-thirds of the House Republican Conference was elected starting in 2010, they do not recall that their colleagues lost the majority in 2006, not coincidentally following this unprecedented earmark binge.

They were also not around to personally witness how the rampant corruption surrounding the earmark process was exemplified by the conviction and incarceration of Republican Reps. Duke Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Ohio, along with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, congressional staff, and other lobbyists.

One of the arguments being used by earmark proponents is that Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to spend. That is undeniable.

But James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who had vastly different views of federal authority, agreed that this power is limited, and federal money should not be used for matters of local or regional benefit. President James Monroe elaborated on his views in 1822, when he said that such expenditures should be limited “to great national works only, since if it were unlimited it would liable to abuse and might be productive of evil.”

And as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said about members of Congress who wanted to bring back earmarks in 2014, “The problem with all their arguments is: the more powerful you are, the more likely you get the earmark in. Therefore, it is a corrupt system.”

The 2017 Congressional Pig Book will show that in every year since the moratorium was established and Congress passed individual appropriations bills, the number and cost of earmarks that CAGW has uncovered and exposed has grown. In fact, the cost has more than doubled since 2012.

Earmarks will always be an ominous threat to the integrity of the legislative process. The only way to prevent them from metastasizing is to ban them permanently.

Thomas A. Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste, an organization that works to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse in government and has more than one million members and supporters nationwide.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Congress earmarks Finance Government John McCain John McCain legislation Money Newt Gingrich Paul Ryan Paul Ryan Politics states Tom Coburn

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