November 20, 2006

November 20, 2006 | Commentary on Political Thought

Lame duck vs. pork


Rep. Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues won't formally assume control of the House of Representatives until January. But the speaker-in-waiting need not wait until then to set a tone and standard to define her leadership. 
 
Congress still has some legislating to do this year. Though most bills now in the legislative hopper will wither and die, some will -- indeed, must -- pass. Among the "must do" measures: nine appropriations bills yet to be passed by both chambers. 

It is on these bills that Mrs. Pelosi can make her mark by demonstrating that henceforth the federal budget will be written in the U.S. Capitol -- not in the offices of the several thousand lobbyists who have hijacked the process by selling earmarks to paying clients. 

When Congress brings up the appropriations bills for final disposition in next month's lame-duck session, Mrs. Pelosi can strike a huge blow for responsible budgeting by leading a bipartisan majority to reject any appropriations bill that includes earmarks. This stand would force the earmark-enablers of Congress to choose: Either drop the special-interest pork provisions or be prepared to shut down the government on behalf of their high-flying lobbyist buddies.

That's a showdown the fiscally irresponsible can't win. And the stripped-down, cleaned-up budget that emerges could serve as a benchmark of financial integrity by which to measure the next Congress. 

All of the appropriations bills yet to be enacted (nine in the House, 10 in the Senate) share one characteristic: a surfeit of earmarks. Budget analysts estimate these measures harbor as many as 12,000 earmarks crafted to channel billions of taxpayers' dollars to costly projects that benefit privileged constituencies. Among the dubious public "investments" mandated by earmark: $1 million for Mormon Cricket and Grasshopper Activities in Utah, $232,000 for the National Wild Turkey Federation, $587,000 for the Ohio-Israel Agriculture Initiative and $350,000 for the National Council of La Raza. 

Many porkers in Congress contend earmarks provide essential services to their districts. But a substantial part of each year's earmarks seem to serve no vital need. Rather, more and more appear to have been bought and sold through hefty fees paid to lobbyists and campaign contributions to members. As several recent investigations and indictments reveal, corruption plays a disturbing role in the earmark trade. 

Of course, corruption may have played absolutely no part in pending earmarks that would direct federal tax dollars to the Toledo Jazz Society ($100,000), the Polish American Culture Center ($250,000), the Youth Baseball Partnership with Washington, D.C.'s Payne Elementary School ($50,000) and the History Museum of East Otter Tail County in Minnesota ($150,000). But by canceling these and the other 12,000 or so earmarks now before Congress, Mrs. Pelosi would strike a blow against the shadow government of lobbyists who have increased their share of the federal budget process in recent years. 

By breaking this pay-to-play link, she will restore to Congress an important constitutional prerogative some members have rented out to others. No longer able to offer clients earmark guarantees as they have these last few years, lobbyists will find fewer clients willing to pay steep fees for uncertain results. As the lobbyists' resources shrink, ordinary citizens' power will be restored and will fill the vacuum. 

To be sure, keeping citizens' interests at the forefront of Congress will require more than a single, dramatic gesture during a one- or two-week lame-duck session. To make these standards of integrity permanent, Mrs. Pelosi must also use the December session to impose much tougher ethics rules on how Congress interacts with privileged constituencies. 

Rejecting earmarks would be a bold course, and there's no assurance members of her party would comply. But Mrs. Pelosi is no stranger to bold and controversial moves on wasteful earmarks. Only about three weeks after Katrina devastated New Orleans and coastal Mississippi, Mrs. Pelosi was the first of a handful of members to offer to give the earmarks she had won for her district to the Katrina relief effort. 

Few followed her offer of sacrifice. But that effort set in motion a national debate on earmarks and corruption that Mrs. Pelosi can now bring to closure.

Ronald Utt is the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

About the Author

Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D. Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow

First appeared in the Washington Times