November 21, 2007

November 21, 2007 | Commentary on

Congress' Dirty Secret

German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck once quipped, "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." Well, that was true in the 19th century and it's true today. This Congress' spending spree is enough to make anyone's stomach churn.

After spending much of the legislative calendar on unnecessary congressional investigations and countless symbolic -- but ultimately meaningless -- votes on the war in Iraq, Congress is sprinting to the finish line to complete some critical work. Left behind, however, is the majority's promise to be better stewards of Americans' hard-earned tax dollars.

For centuries, Congress has been in the business of earmarking appropriation dollars for local projects in the members' home districts.

This usually starts when members ask the Appropriation Committee Chairman to direct federal money to specific local projects. Because Congress is obligated to enact into law 12 appropriation bills ranging from military construction to education, Members of Congress have plenty of opportunities to request federal monies for a broad range of local interests, such as road repair in the annual transportation appropriation bill.

And while this practice has been going on for centuries, the last few years have seen an exponential spike in the number of earmarks requested. As the non-profit government watchdog Citizens against Government Waste reports, back in 1991 Congress earmarked a total of 546 projects. In 1992, the number jumped to 892. In 1993 it went up to 1,712. By 2003 the number stood at 9,362, and 2005 saw the mind-boggling number reach 13,997.

Why the increase? It's probably due to a whole host of factors, but put simply, Congress has been gradually succumbing to the intoxicating power of controlling the nation's purse strings. In securing earmarks in various appropriation bills, Members of Congress can flex their political muscles to constituents back home and proudly participate in ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the local newspapers.

Previously, government agencies issued federal grants through a merit-based application process. Today, lawmakers personally direct government grants however they want. Giving Congress this authority has landed a few members in hot water -- like former Representative Randy Cunningham, currently serving an 8-year sentence after pleading guilty to accepting bribes. Ultimately corruption scandals and the appearance of impropriety spelled defeat for the Republican-controlled Congress during last year's midterm election.

Despite promises to reduce the number of earmarks and increase transparency in the appropriations process, it's evident that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Department of Defense Appropriations Act alone has 2,074 projects, totaling $6.6 billion. While not every project is unnecessary, there are a number of earmarks that stand out and should make even the casual observer wonder how it's related to defense -- like $3 million for a golf program in Florida for youths, and $2.4 million for an educational facility in California.

Unfortunately, Congress' unchecked spending spree continues to add to our budget deficit while saddling the next generation with the debt. Add to this the looming entitlement crisis of paying for government programs like Social Security in a few years, and it's evident that Congress is being financially reckless.

Clearly not every earmark is bad. In fact, appropriating federal monies is a valuable process and ensures that local needs are met. But as our country is fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Congress should exercise some fiscal restraint and serve as a good example to the rest of us by making some sacrifices.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry
Accounting

First appeared in New York's El Diario