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Sun., March 15, 2009

Dismissing earmarks as small misses point

President Obama has vowed to curb the number of earmarks, also known as pork, in future spending bills. A commendable promise, had his number been zero. Unfortunately, the president wants to deal with an unsavory dish by cutting the portion size.

Earmarks are pet projects that lawmakers stuff into spending bills. There are 9,000 earmarks in the omnibus appropriations bill about which Obama gave his pork talk on Wednesday.

Democratic leaders are right that “this is last year’s business.” And it’s true that earmarks made up less than 2 percent of the $410 billion spending bill.

But earmark spending is not only about money. It is about enabling fundamentally corrupt practices in the budgeting process. Too often the following happens:

Member of Congress obtains pork for a group or business. The recipient returns some of it in the form of campaign cash or, in at least one case, antiques for the home. Former Rep. Randy Cunningham, a California Republican, was famously brought down by a bribe-for-earmark scandal including Persian rugs.

The FBI is now investigating PMA Group on suspicions of making phony campaign donations to select representatives. Rep. John Murtha has received generous contributions from the employees of PMA, a lobbying firm whose clients have enjoyed earmarks, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Democrat.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid likes the status quo on pork. Waving the flag of American security, a spokesman for the Nevada Democrat recently told the Washington Post that defense-related earmarks “improve critical national defense programs.”

No, they don’t. Every defense-related earmark goes to something the Defense Department didn’t ask for – and is usually directed to some contractor back in the district. That money could have gone to actually enhancing national security.

Obama’s call for still greater transparency on earmarking is a useless gesture. Most lawmakers are darn proud of them. They list the bacon they’ve bagged for their constituents right on their Web sites.

Some portray earmarks as a beautiful exercise in democracy and ask, “Why should unelected officials make decisions?” Frankly, I’d rather have an unelected general in the Pentagon allocate defense dollars than a politician raking in campaign cash from a local defense contractor.

“Earmarks must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose,” Obama said. That is true, and many do. But the worthy ones can be part of a rational budgeting process.

A regrettable offshoot of the debate is that good ideas get ridiculed because they are earmarks. Great fun has been made of the earmark for swine odor and manure management in Iowa. Actually, those are very serious concerns in a state that has nearly seven hogs for every human.

We had a good laugh over the earmark for studying catfish genetics in Alabama. But Alabama has 250 commercial fish farmers for whom catfish is by far the dominant species.

And there was a big har-har-har about the earmark for grape genetics research in New York state. New York happens to be home to a large winemaking industry. (“Quick, peel me a grape,” twittered Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a longtime foe of earmarks.)

Why are earmarks getting so much attention now? Three reasons: (1) They are easy to understand. (2) The public links the current economic fiasco to a “bought government” for which earmarks are one form of currency. (3) With trillions now going out the door for bailouts and economic stimuli, Americans feel they have an enormous stake in clean budgeting.

If Washington can’t end a tawdry system that involves relatively small amounts of money, what hope is there for reforming the big stuff? Cutting the number of earmarks to zero shouldn’t be that hard – and should be this year’s business.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for the Providence Journal.

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