For years, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., waged a lonely crusade in the House to try to kill earmarks, those special provisions that lawmakers regularly slipped into spending bills to benefit their districts or political allies. Flake, a one-time Mormon missionary in Africa, disavowed earmarks for his own constituents, but like the famous bridge, his repeated efforts to get others to follow suit went nowhere.
That is, until now.
In the wake of a midterm election that demonstrated the strong influence of the Tea Party and anti-spending forces, spurning earmarks is now politically fashionable — with politicians as disparate as President Obama, House GOP Leader John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky all aggressively endorsing a temporary moratorium on the measures.
Obama cited the now-infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” project in Alaska when calling for an end to the practice recently. “Earmarks like these represent a relatively small part of overall federal spending,” Obama said in a radio address. “But when it comes to signaling our commitment to fiscal responsibility, addressing them would have an important impact.” McConnell — an earmark devotee for many years — announced his change of heart in a floor speech last week after feeling the heat from Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and other Tea Party allies. “Banning earmarks is another small but important, symbolic step we can take to show that we are serious, another step on the way to serious and sustained cuts in spending and to the debt,” he said.
“I have listened to my constituents,” McConnell said, while cautioning that Congress may be ceding power to the administration over how federal funds are spent. “Over the years, I have seen presidents of both parties seek to acquire total discretion over appropriations. And I have seen presidents of both parties waste more taxpayer dollars on meritless projects, commissions and programs than every congressional earmark put together,” he said. “So I am not wild about turning over more spending authority to the executive branch.”
But Flake, a true believer in his mission against what he considers wasteful pork barrel spending, betrays little doubt about the wisdom of putting an end to the earmark process — at least for a while. And after operating for years on the political fringes — sponsoring amendments to delete specific earmarks — Flake now has a good chance of winning an appointment to the House Appropriations Committee, which has been responsible for lacing spending bills with earmarks.
In the greater scheme of things, earmarks have accounted for a tiny fraction of the federal budget. Individual projects, like the $2 million spent to refurbish the statue of Vulcan that stood above steel town Birmingham, Ala., for year, or the $50,000 spent on a tattoo-removal program in San Luis Obispo, Calif., have drawn derisive remarks from critics. But earmarks overall have cost about $16 billion annually, or about one percent of the federal budget.
fact we’ve given up oversight over the other 98 percent of spending.”
Even if earmarks were wiped out, it would do little to reduce the $1.3 trillion annual budget deficit. And even if members of Congress can no longer dictate how that money is spent, those funds would remain in the budget, to be spent one way or another — the very argument McConnell was making.
But Flake insists that “Senator McConnell is just wrong” in asserting that the elimination of earmarks shifts too much authority to the administration. “The worst part about earmarks is not the money wasted; it’s the fact we’ve given up oversight over the other 98 percent of spending,” he said in an interview with The Fiscal Times.
Flake noted the massive Homeland Security appropriations bill traditionally carries few earmarks but still spends money in ways he considers suspect or irresponsible. One appropriations project Flake questioned was for street light synchronization in Apache Junction, a fast-growing community in his own district.
He also wants Congress to return to the process of reauthorizing federal programs on a regular basis to limit appropriators’ discretion in spending money on them. Congress must periodically review the work of federal agencies and departments and pass new legislation spelling out their responsibilities and mandates. But most existing federal programs have not been reauthorized in years.
“Authorization, appropriations and oversight, that’s the process we should have,” Flake said.