Earmarking funding sure to end in scandal

Editorial

If anyone still believes the changing of the guard in Congress will curtail the annual raids on ye ol’ pork barrel, or end the practice of earmarking special expenditures for the home district or state, they didn’t read last Sunday’s story in The New York Times, “As Power Shifts in New Congress, Pork May Linger.”

The headline writer erred in using the qualifier “may,” when a more definitive “will” would have been better.

The story reiterated what seasoned Washington watchers already know: the plundering will continue apace under Democrats, all the good government rhetoric aside. Pigging out on the pork is, and always has been, a bipartisan affair, with logrolling being the order of the day.

This is how it works, according to the Times: “By longstanding, informal agreement, the majority typically doles out about 60 percent of the money for earmarks and lets the minority pass out the rest. And they form a united front against limitations on the earmark process.”

The number of earmarks exploded under Republican leadership, as the formerly fiscally responsible party was seduced by the power of the purse strings. But the trendlines were already on the rise when Democrats ran the pigsty.

When Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, a world-class porker, hands control of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee over to Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Democrat, the earmarkers won’t miss a beat, according to the story. Inouye “plans to continue his subcommittee’s approach to earmarks,” reported the Times. “If something is wrong, we should clean house,” the senator said, “but if (members) can explain (an earmark) and justify it, I will look at it.”

Members of Congress are nothing if not resourceful when it comes to explaining and justifying earmarks — and recognizing the merit in the earmarks of their colleagues. And from the point of view of the beneficiaries, every federal expenditure fits the definition of a “critical national need.”

Questioning a colleague’s earmarks can get a member of Congress in trouble with the “cardinals” — the powerful clique of committee chairmen that dole out the goodies while dishing up a heaping helping for themselves. When controversy erupted last year over Sen. Stevens’ “bridge to nowhere,” Washington State Sen. Patty Murray (who is in line to chair the Transportation Appropriations subcommittee) warned colleagues that criticizing the bridge might bring retaliation.

“What is good for the goose is good for the gander,” Murray said. “I tell my colleagues, if we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next.”

The threats worked. “Every Democrat on the Appropriations Committee voted against an amendment to strike the bridge, and after threats from Ms. Murray and Mr. Stevens, only 15 senators voted for the amendment,” reports the Times. This is the congressional version of “honor among thieves.”

Their prowess as porkers has become a point of pride with many members of Congress. “I happen to be a supporter of earmarks, unabashedly,” said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who will likely chair the Appropriations Subcommittee for Labor, Health and Human Services.

Harkin takes pride in the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s funneled through the Department of Defense for breast cancer research. “Now, was that bad?” Harkin asked the Times. “If you left it to the Defense Department, they never would have done it.”

That’s probably true, because the Defense Department’s primary function is fighting and winning wars, not curing breast cancer. There are more appropriate federal agencies for conducting such research, but the Defense Department became a conduit for Harkin’s earmarks because of the senator’s committee assignments.

Harkin declines to use the term “earmark.” He prefers the euphemism “congressional directed funding.” But whatever one calls it, it’s a scandal — and one that isn’t going to end with Democrats in charge of Congress.