by Peter Bearse
Earmarks are so much in the Congressional news, you’d think Congress was< in the livestock business. For originally, earmarks were notches that farmers put on ears of cattle or pigs to identify them. So, isn’t it cute how earmarks have come to be associated with political “pork” and Congressional porkers?
Then there are franks, as in Congressional “franking” (mailing) privileges, typically abused more than the pigs who squeal when their ears are notched. Isn’t it also funny how franks also arise from pigs, too, as in pork sausage? So, franks and earmarks are porker hallmarks, both.
Another, more troubling similarity is that Members of Congress (MoC’s) are addicted to both. There have been numerous attempts, and many more proposed, to reform both practices. Frankly, those aimed to reform abuse of the mailing privilege have repeatedly failed. Several to reform Congress’ drunken reliance upon “earmarks” are still under debate. Prognoses as to their ultimate success are not good.
Why?—Because franks and earmarks represent the deepest roots of corruption of our own, people’s branch of our 3-legged government, the Congress – “deepest” because they make the rest of us accomplices in corruption. Consider franks. Our Rep’s [e.g., Paul Hodes, D, CD2] claim that the mail sent out by their offices – costing over $175,000 of taxpayers’ money! -- are a basic tool of democracy – to provide information. Actually, the mail is mainly self-serving / self-promotion, a basic tool of un-democracy -- to cut competition for the office and greatly increase the odds of re-election based upon self-advertising rather than accountability.
We are made accomplices in the promotion game by the stationery and postage printed at our expense, prominently featuring our Rep. and his committee memberships, and by the illusion that real, good information about what’s going on in Congress is being provided. Who has the time to delve below the superficial impression of receiving “information from your Congressman” in order to find out what is NOT being reported or revealed? Who stops to recall that there are two ways to lie, by omission as well as by commission?
Constituent complicity in corruption is far less subtle in the case of earmarks. After all, getting a local project earmarked in the federal budget is part of a Congressman’s job, isn’t it? His District is just a teensy-weensy part of the budget, after all, isn’t it? Shouldn’t our District get a piece of the federal pie? What’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong is that our Rep’s are bribing us, again, to ensure their re-election(s). They don’t tell us the implications of local project pork any more than that of their “frank” mail. The fact of the matter is that earmarks have been shoehorned into federal budgets in rapidly increasing numbers over the past several years. Some shoehorns have been properly legislated and above board, some not and subrosa. Total outlays for earmarks nationwide have been budget busters. So, the MoC who takes credit for earmarks while claiming to be fighting the increasing federal deficit is a hypocrite. We constituents get turned into hypocrites, too. We’ve been lulled into rationalizing earmarks, as if we can eat our cake and have it, too.
Both franks and earmarks are like soft-core pornography -- something legal that many people enjoy but won’t admit to -- an area where self-policing fails. The standards for Congressional mail to qualify for taxpayer subsidy are set by who? – who else but a committee of Congress, just like Congress self-policing of Congressional ethics. Does anyone think that Congress’ standards for qualifying “earmarks” would do anything but avoid more “bridges to nowhere”?
The answers lie in independent citizens’ committee to set standards in both areas. Except more is needed to get Congress unhooked from earmarks. A lot more money is involved, often for worthy local projects like courthouses and roads. Here, let’s return to an important part of the Reagan legacy: “Let’s get power and money out of Washington and bring it down home to states and localities.” Remember General Revenue Sharing? Bring it back with a focus on localities more that states, so that local governments receive federal money for local projects with no strings attached.
Members: Will you rise to the challenge?
PETER BEARSE, Ph.D., International Consulting Economist and Member of the Budget Committee, Town of Fremont, NH. Comments welcomed via firstname.lastname@example.org.