The Role of Earmarks And Our Debt Explosion

The Loyola Institute of Politics (IOP) in New Orleans had a forum for three retired members of the Louisiana Congressional Delegation last evening that I was privileged to attend.  Senator John Breaux, Congressman Billy Tauzin and Congressman Bob Livingston shared the stage and delighted the audience with great insight and old stories from more than 80 years of combined service in Congress.

For the most part, it was an enjoyable, introspective event for three men who generally served the state of Louisiana with distinction.  However, one topic that arose of substance involved the issue of Congressional earmarking.  All three men robustly defended this practice in part because it involves less than 2% of Federal outlays and that elected Representatives and Senators know more about the needs of their districts or states than nameless and faceless bureaucrats in Washington, DC.

These two points are true on the surface but they miss the point of the current budget challenges our nation faces.

First, let me stipulate that I had the tremendous honor of working for Congressman Livingston when he chaired the House Appropriations Committee from 1995 through 1998.  Under his leadership, the Congress reduced the discretionary appropriations baseline and held it below the Fiscal Year 1995 levels for four years while still increasing much needed expenditures for our national defense.  This was the key reason for the operating budget to come into balance in the late 1990s and Congressional earmarks were included in most of the then thirteen appropriations subcommittees at the time.  Congressional add-ons never eclipsed more than 2% of the annual budgets during this time period.

However, what was not a part of the discussions – understandably so – was what happened from 1999 on through Fiscal Year 2010.

The number of earmarks exploded from a few hundred to thousands across programs in agencies that had never been carved out historically.  Having consulted for a number of municipalities and private sector clients with work before the Federal Government, I witnessed this transformation firsthand.

Was this shift constitutional?

Anyone who has actually read Article I of the Constitution and the history of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees would answer in the affirmative.  The Congress has the power of the purse and directing the Executive Branch to spend money on priorities of the Legislative Branch has a long tradition and history.

The problem with the recent years proliferation is that the Appropriations process morphed into an annual obsession my senior members and the rank and file on their own pet projects rather than oversight of the programs in question.

Most Members of Congress became fixated on steering funds to their districts or states and neglected to do that which took place under Mr. Livingston’s leadership. In the mid 1990s, hundreds of programs were eliminated, duplicative functions were weeded out and serious savings were achieved for the American taxpayer.

Fast forward to the middle of the last decade and this process overwhelmed programs like the reauthorization of the Federal-aid Highway bill and the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska where $200+ million of budget authority was directed to a project in Alaska that impacted around a 100 people. Few political pundits would dispute that these earmarks in appropriations bills and reauthorizations led to the defeat of the GOP in the 2006 mid-term Congressional elections and seriously tarnished the GOP’s brand of fiscal conservatism. There had to be at least a time out to this reckless behavior, which was exacerbated even further under the Pelosi Congresses and first half of the Obama Administration.  A Legislative Branch that curbs the endless tables of member projects and additional spending into that of constant oversight is going to realize serious reductions in spending in the short term and long term.

The easiest way to demonstrate this would be an analogy the late writer and theologian Richard John Neuhaus told to me over dinner several years ago.

Father Neuhaus was describing to me how his use of the internet initially made his ability to research for articles and book writing much more efficient than he ever deemed possible ten years earlier.  Unfortunately, this tool ended up being almost obsessive whereby he found himself online for hours at a time.  Eventually he realized he was using the internet more than ten hours each day and this was actually stunting his ability to read and even write the works he had done many years prior.  He decided to limit his use of the internet entirely for days at a time.  Eventually he began using a stopwatch to monitor the time to no more than seventeen minutes in an hour.  In short order, his ability to read and write increased and he became more productive than ever.

Although this is very much a micro-level comparison to the Congress and the federal budget, I believe it to be an excellent description of how the Congress can restore balance to the Federal budget.

A current moratorium on Congressional earmarks demonstrates the Legislative Branch can employ fiscal discipline, restore the trust of the American people and eventually return to limited directives, much like the tenure of Congressman Livingston’s days as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.  History will demonstrate that renewal of oversight shrinks the size and scope of the budget and will be a key component of placing the nation on a glide path away from fiscal ruin.

“Just because you can do something, does not mean you should do so.”



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