Timid gestures won’t slow congressional spending

Editorial

Just as it took the anti-Communist Richard Nixon to go to China, because anyone else would have been accused of cuddling up with the Reds, perhaps it will take congressional Democrats — a party never associated with fiscal discipline — to help put a halt to the abuse of pork-barrel earmarks.

Or perhaps Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi’s pledge to make Congress more fiscally accountable is just a ploy, meant to convince Americans that the party that pioneered deficit spending and pork-barrel plundering can be trusted with the federal purse strings again.
We’re betting on the latter.

“Democrats aim to open the next Congress in January with a new rule that identifies lawmakers who use legislative ‘earmarks’ to help special interests — a change Republicans promised but didn’t implement,” reported USA Today on Monday. “House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said her first agenda item after being elected House speaker will be a vote to require sponsors of earmarks to be identified. Currently, lawmakers can remain anonymous in sponsoring an earmark, which is language in a bill that directs funds or tax benefits to a business, project or institution.”

Interesting. But we were crestfallen to read, in the story’s next few paragraphs, that Pelosi is pushing for “transparency” even though she doesn’t think doing away with earmarks is “realistic.” In fact, Pelosi said she believes many earmarks “are worthy” and “can be a legitimate way for Congress to force fiscal priorities on the White House.”

From idealism to “realism” to rationalizations in two short paragraphs: That must be a record, even for Washington.

While pork-barrel politicians have always been with us, the number of earmarks tucked into congressional spending bills has tripled in the past decade, according to the Congressional Research Service. They now total about 16,000 projects per spending cycle, adding billions of dollars annually to the deficit and debt, for expenditures that aren’t a national responsibility or priority. And while the Republicans undoubtedly made pigs of themselves as the majority, Democrats almost certainly will do likewise.

“You can’t have bridges to nowhere for America’s children to pay for,” Pelosi said, evoking one notorious recent pork project. “Or if you do, you have to know whose it is.” So it’s OK with Pelosi if you spend federal funds on a “bridge to nowhere,” as long as you ’fess up to it? That’s incredibly weak.

We urge the new speaker to lead by example. Not only should Pelosi identify all the earmarks she attaches to future spending bills, she should identify those she’s tucked into past spending bills. But that could be embarrassing.

“Nancy Pelosi is talking the talk about getting rid of earmarks, but now we’ll see if she is ready to walk the walk,” said David Williams, the vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste. “When it comes to pork-barreling, her lips say no, no, no, but her actions say yes, yes, yes.”

CAGW research shows Pelosi has been responsible for nearly 20 earmarks in the last two fiscal years alone, including $291,000 for the International Museum of Women in San Francisco, $388,000 for the Filipino Cultural Center in San Francisco, $2 million to the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park and $450,000 to the San Francisco “Safe Streets Project.”

Might some of these expenditures be worthwhile? Sure, from the point of view of Bay-area beneficiaries. But the question should be, are they an appropriate use of federal funds? Or put another way, would a taxpayer in Clovis, Portales or Tucumcari be happy paying for them? Using this litmus test, they clearly qualify as “pork.”

Some reformers believe earmark “disclosure rules” will shame members of Congress into curbing their appetite for pork, but we have doubts.

Few members like being singled out by CAGW and other watchdog groups for raiding the Treasury, yet most also love to brag to constituents about the federal spending they “brought back” to the state or district. And many constituents also have come to see this as a legitimate part of the job, unfortunately, not realizing it’s a vicious circle.

If Pelosi really wanted to change things, she would require that any member seeking an earmark come forward with an “offset,” or cut, to make it budget neutral. For every item tacked onto one appropriations bill, a cut of equivalent value would have to be made elsewhere. That wouldn’t necessarily reduce the overall cost of pork, but it would force members to justify their projects and make trade-offs.

That would be unacceptable to rank-and-file members of both parties, of course, so Pelosi settles for this timid gesture instead — which won’t work because you can’t shame the shameless.