NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Earmarks

By Merrie Spaeth, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Did Republicans lose the House and Senate because of the war in Iraq? The war certainly didn't help, but for many of us, the failure of Republicans to govern, to lead, to fulfill their promises is symbolized by their piggy behavior. I'm talking about earmarks.

Earmarks are those little gifts to favored constituents that members of Congress can put anonymously into legislation. There were approximately 500 in 1998 and about 15,000 last year. (I say "approximately" and "about" because, since they're anonymous and hidden, no one knows exactly how many there are or who put them there.) What's wrong with Republicans was symbolized by a recent piece in USA Today by a Texas congressman, who wrote that he's a "fiscal conservative", and then proceeds to defend earmarks! Here's his reasoning, and why it's so wrong.

He wrote "it's more efficient" because members know their districts better than federal bureaucrats. Well, by that argument, all federal spending should just be handed over to members because they "know their districts". Then he wrote, "it's only one percent of spending," leaving aside entirely that it's the principle of how budget items are supposed to be allocated and appropriated (that is decided upon and funded.) He never heard the late Senator Everett Dirksen's great line, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money."

Earmarks corrupt the system. Here's how it really works. A person works for a congressman, then leaves and goes to work for a lobbying firm. Or the congressman's (needs to be consistent throughout and I think congressman is okay to use) spouse or children go to work for a lobbying firm. A company, city or organization pays the lobbying firm hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the former staffer or family member approaches their good friend in Congress who then thoughtfully earmarks whatever is needed for the pet project. All anonymously.

Now the Democrats are in power, and Speaker-elect Pelosi has committed to making this "the most ethical Congress ever." She has an opportunity. Congressman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, a Democrat, has introduced legislation which doesn't ban earmarks but says that members of Congress can't earmark funds unless they're in earlier legislation. In other words, no last minute, middle of the night insertions into conference reports, and the earmarks can't benefit entities or lobbying firms that employ family members or former staffers.

Now this doesn't ban trading. In other words, one Congressman earmarks something for another Congressman. But it's a start. Here's the bad news, according to the New York Times, "No one expects Democrats to enact such a change because many have close ties to former staff members or family members in the lobbying business."

I hope Mr. Emanuel and his co-sponsor Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, both Democrats, will succeed where Republicans failed miserably in implementation and in integrity. In that well known comment of Lord Acton's, "Power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely," we tend to focus on the second half of the phrase rather than the first part: "power corrupts." Earmarks corrupt the entire system.

Back to our Texas congressman announcing to the nation and world how Texas conservatives have lost their way: he writes, "'earmark' has become a bad word because a few members have abused the system." Wrong. Earmarks have become a symbol because they turn people who used to have principles into pigs.

Merrie Spaeth is a communications consultant based in Dallas.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.