Congress is scheduled to return to Washington on Monday for its 2010 “lame duck” session. It is shaping up to be one of the most watched sessions in recent memory as everyone will be waiting to see whether Congress “got the message” sent by the voters on November 2. Next to the health care bill and tax increases, the practice of earmarks is likely to be one of the more contentious items on the agenda.
Earmarks have for decades been the safest, most economical and efficient form of the political art of corruption practiced in Washington. Democrats and Republicans alike will attempt to defend earmarks based on the relative low costs when compared with the overall budget. That is a good argument if we ignore the purpose of earmarks and do not measure it against the “gold standard” for Congressional actions, the Constitution.
Earmarks are the most efficient way for incumbents to “buy” the votes of their constituents without running afoul of election laws. One of the anomalies of American politics is the contradiction between the low approval level of Congress and the percentage of incumbents returned to Congress in election after election. Voters have been conditioned to judge their elected officials on their ability to “bring home the bacon”. When talking to voters, one of the most frequently given reasons why they like their own Congressman or Senator while disliking Congress as a whole is the perception they have of what their representatives have done for the state or community. That perception is primarily based on earmarks slipped into appropriation bills.
Next to the practice of allowing lobbyists to craft specifications for items purchased by the federal government that favor their own production capabilities at the expense of their competitors, earmarks are one of best methods for acquiring large campaign contributions. Contractors that supply the goods and services paid for by earmarks are always the primary beneficiaries of government largess. Earmarks for projects that utilize union labor give the politicians the most “bang for the buck”. In return, unions provide millions of man-hours to their political benefactors at election time for “get out the vote” drives, in addition to the millions in direct and indirect campaign contributions.
Last but not least, earmarks provide an efficient method for wealth redistribution among states and communities as elected officials compete for their slice of the pie. Doing away with earmarks would upset a system painstakingly built up over the years by the political parties for protecting the jobs of their incumbents. That may mean that politicians, in order to continue to enjoy salaries and perks unmatched anywhere in the world, would have to resort to actually keeping their oath of office and being faithful to their constituents and the Constitution.