When Nancy Pelosi was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives following last November’s elections, in which Democrats won a majority of seats in the House, she and fellow representatives promised an end to earmark projects. After years of preaching fiscal constraint, the Republican Party found itself having to defend “pork barrel” projects like Alaska’s notorious “Bridge to Nowhere.”
Earmarks are a way for congressmen, at both the federal and state level, to show their patronage of the districts they represent. Many of the projects are indeed important in the home state, or district, and can at times be difficult to explain to taxpayers that don’t reside in those districts. But a recent report on CNN would seem to indicate that Congress would rather not try to explain the estimated 32,000 earmarks, and instead would prefer to hide behind a cloak of darkness. According to the CNN report, out of 435 U.S. Representatives’ offices called, only 31 of them made their requests for the 2008 budget year available. Three hundred and twenty-nine did not respond to the request and 68 reportedly refused to provide the list.
Government budgets are public information, and as part of those budgets “legislatively directed spending” as earmarking for pork projects is now being called on Capitol Hill, fall under that same umbrella. That applies to local, state and federal governments. Because it is public information, watchdog groups are able to uncover wasteful spending programs, but generally not until spending packages are approved and published.
Watchdog groups do an adequate job of uncovering government-spending abuses after the fact, the open government laws were written and enacted to make sure taxpayers were apprised of the government’s actions as they are drafted and debated. So called “Sunshine laws” are in place to make sure that the press is able to obtain and report facts as they develop — not after a vote’s taken place.
This past January, Democrats re-wrote House rules so that earmarks would at least be included and identified in documents as spending bills were debated. That position has softened to the point that it will only be during the conferee period that the earmarks will see the light of day. As expected, Republicans are crying foul — even though they indulge in as many pork projects as their counterparts across the aisle.
There’s an old saying that goes along the lines of “it’s not pork when it’s for my district.” There are many strong arguments for that position. The snapshots of spending projects that most of the public see come from television news programs looking for ratings, on niche Web sites with sometimes questionable reporting — in other words from venues that throw out numbers without explanation. The CNN report talks about last year’s requests for of $400 hammers, unwanted cargo planes, silly museums and other projects. But unmentioned among those earmarks were flood control projects, medical research and other worthwhile projects.
What happens to the universally “accepted” or good projects, though, is that they are grouped together with the “silly” pork projects. The leading reason for this is because in the absence of information, the public will draw its own conclusions. Because more than three-quarters of our nation’s elected officials refused to provide information about the projects they wanted funded in their districts, their good projects that help house the homeless, fund cancer research and other worthwhile efforts get lumped together with projects that sound ridiculous to most of us.
As taxpayers, let us hope that the recent experiment to bring the earmarks to light has the desired effect on our elected officials, and that some of the 404 Representatives who would not provide their lists of projects change their position and allow these projects to see the light of day. Taxpayers ought to know what they are buying before they agree to pay for it.
Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.