An Eagle With One Wing: Why Earmarks Aren’t Always Bad

Ever since the 2006 Midterm Elections, news people have had a field day talking about, and complaining about, earmarks.  Well, really this has been happening ever since Jack Abramoff.  Okay, it’s been going on since the now famous Bridge to Nowhere.  Actually, complaints about pork barrel spending have been occurring for as long as I can remember.

Anderson Cooper, a journalist and news personality who I have loved and watched ever since the Christmas Tsunami 0f 2004, has been particularly critical of earmarks since the 2006 elections.  He often criticizes Congress, especially Democrats since he claims Democrats promised to rein in, possibly even end, the earmark practice.  Actually, Democrats promised to make the process visible and accountable.  Which they have done.  Now, each earmark must list its sponsor, purpose and cost.  I will be the first to say the process isn’t going as smoothly as it should.  There have been problems with accountability, as highlighted by a report done by CNN and Anderson Cooper where interns called the members of the House of Representatives asking for a list of earmarks.  Many Representatives refused the request.

And so, after Abramoff and the Bridge to Nowhere, the climate toward earmarks in Congress has turned ugly.  Anyone with earmarks is labeled a pork spender.  Anyone who supports earmarks is a pork spender.  And it has gone so far that the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has tried to rename the process as “legislatively directed spending.”

But not all earmarks are bad.  Here is one example of the anti-earmark culture gone wrong:

Earmark Gone, Indian Project Is One-Winged

I don’t know all of the particulars regarding this case.  I only know what is being reported, but this one-winged Cultural Center seems to have been a solid solution to the poverty problem on Native American reservations.  The project, instead, is abandoned and the half finished center rises above the landscape as yet one more example of the U.S. government breaking promises with Native Americans.  Why?  Because “earmarks” is a word with terrible connotations now.

Yes, $200 million dollars for a bridge that leads, literally, to nowhere is a terrible waste of taxpayer money.  But that doesn’t mean all bridge projects are bad and that federal funds shouldn’t go to such projects.  Some bridges need to be built.  And some bridges need to be rebuilt, as we saw last August when the I-35W Bridge collapsed in Minneapolis.

It may seem shady for a member of Congress to extend an airport runway, one which maybe isn’t even used very often, in his or her district.  And it may indeed be shady.  And it may also entice business people to fly their private jets to that airport.  And those business people might invest in or build a business in that district.  And that business might employee who knows how many people.  Which will lead to how much raised tax revenue?  And a cut in how much unemployment spending?  And welfare spending?  And on and on and on.

I think the whole process needs some serious reform.  And maybe Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense is right to say, “Live by the earmark, die by the earmark.”  But ending all earmarks, deciding all earmarks are proof of dirty, corrupt politicians sleeping with big business isn’t going to help anything.  And it isn’t accurate, either.  Nor will it likely end corrupt spending.

No, the anti-earmark culture will likely just lead to a bunch of one-winged eagles lying across the American landscape. 

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8 Responses

  1. The problem is both one of accountability and also of federal spending where state spending would be more appropriate. The Alaskan bridge might even be a nice thing for Alaskans, but attaching its funding to an unrelated bill and getting the rest of the US to pay for it is a problem. Maybe this Indian Cultural Center was a great idea, but apparently it isn’t something many people feel strongly enough about to actually support. South Dakota only needs to pay for one wing, where is the money at? If the project is so brilliant, why does it need earmarked money to even reach completion? If it is a good idea, it should be able to get its own funding without the help of an approporiation that may or may not be in any way related to the spending bill it is attached to. The earmark might do a bunch of good things, just like bribing (or blackmailing or just plain intimidating) someone might do a bunch of good things. But the process does matter (earmarks are a good example of why results oriented thinking is bad practice in almost all walks of life though).

    Are all earmarks wastes of money? No, probably not. But that isn’t really the point. Earmarks are absolutely a vehicle for corruption (not to mention wastefullness, though that should be a secondary concern IMO) in our government and ALL earmarks contribute to the culture of corruption within the government.

    Also, we don’t actually know what caused the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. But as an interestate bridge, it wouldn’t really be part of the major problems with earmarks

  2. Well, I think you misunderstand the level of incompleteness of the project — just one wing seems to minimize what still needs to be done. As for why there is no money internally or within the state? Hmm … might have something to do with the fact that it is a project that will benefit Native Americans, an extreme minority.

    “Earmarks are absolutely a vehicle for corruption” Should I say, people cause corruption, not earmarks? No, because I don’t really belive that. Which is why I think the whole process needs serious — real — reform. But doing away with them entirely is not the answer.

    And there is a space for federal money spent on “non-federal” things. Might be the semi-socialist in me, but jobs are good and if federal money creates something that helps jobs, I’m all for it. Earmarks for a specific school, I’m for it. Earmarks for arts grants, I’m for it. Why? Because there are things that the public might not realize they want or need (or want to admit anyone needs — like a project to assist Native Americans). But the federal government can afford to throw some money at them to make those projects happen.

  3. If the project is spending millions of dollars to benefit an extreme minority, is it really worth the money? That’s not a net benefit, that’s a net loss that happens to benefit a small group of people at the expense of a larger group of people. Just because the small group of people happen to be native americans doesn’t make it a good idea. Obviously I’d need to know more specifics about the project to know whether it really makes sense or not, but just because it benefits a minority doesn’t automatically make it a good thing.

    The federal government can also afford to simply not spend the money and let the states collect the actual money they need (ie reduce federal taxes and increase state level taxation to make up the difference). The whole, you don’t know you want this but you really do want it mentality sounds like crap to me. I’d prefer if the government didn’t tell me what I want and don’t want, or what I need and don’t need.

    But yeah, doing away with earmarks isn’t the only possible solution. Doing away with them in their current form is a necessity however.

  4. I agree with reform — serious reform. But I never said that just because it was for Native Americans it was a good thing. I believe I said that was why the money wasn’t there internally. Still, one could certainly argue that the federal government owes it to the Native Americans to spend the money helping them.

    “I’d prefer if the government didn’t tell me what I want and don’t want, or what I need and don’t need.” On the whole I would agree. Except people rarely vote for things that they should consider more important (like school levies and art levies) and then complain about why those things aren’t there. I guess I’m more willing to trust the government (when its actions are visible) that the general public.

  5. One could also argue that there are better ways for the federal government to spend money helping Native Americans. That’s kinda why, rather than allowing a single congressman to determine on his own what projects are important, we have a system set up for the Native americans to compete for funding. If you can argue that the federal government owes native americans something and this is the best way to fullfill that obligation, I think you probably should actually be required to make the argument rather than forcing taxpayers to simply accept the statement as true and hand over the money.

    See, school levies aren’t that important because increasing funding for poorly performing schools doesn’t actually improve those schools. And I’d argue that art levies get more support than they deserve, not less (though I also wouldn’t complain about the lack of art supported by art levies).

    I can’t possibly comprehend why anyone would trust the government more than the general public. At least when the general public is being self serving, they are acting for the general publics self interests. The very reason you have to add “when its actions are visible” is that the government can’t be trusted to act in anything but its own best interests.

  6. The general public’s self interests or individuals’ self interests? Unfortunately, I don’t buy the idea that the people think about the “general” public — to do so would mean they would consider the best interests of other people as well.

    School levies don’t actually have to do with poorly performing schools. That is federal funds; not local funds. Levies are local ordinances that provide funds to all schools in the area (TPS in my area). And I would assert that sufficiently funded schools are important as well as asserting that levies fail many times less because of the need for funds (or lack thereof) and more because of anti-tax sentiment.

    You could argue that artistic ventures don’t need to be funded. I would disagree. I think a community should support its arts considering the known importance of art as a contributor to the quality of living in an area. But if you think art museums, libraries, symphonies, and theater groups don’t actually contribute to a community, I guess that is your perrogative.

    And I’m suprised you criticize including “when actions are visible”. I assumed we had already agreed that reform was necessary.

  7. You realise that the general public is just made up of a bunch of individuals right? The individuals aggregate (sp?) self interest is, in fact, the general publics interest. That differs significantly from the interest of the aggregate self interest of politicians, which is not necessarily the general publics interests. That’s the problem.

    When did I say they didn’t contribute to a community? I said they don’t need more public funding than they already have (in general). They contribute in the same way any other entertainment industry contributes (and they are treated mostly the same). I also don’t think sports arenas should get more public funding. Do you really think I, of all people, don’t think sports contribute to a community?

    I think you missed my point about the levies. My point is that school funding doesn’t correlate with actual school performance.

    I didn’t mean to criticize the “when its actions are visible” point, I meant to point out why you needed to add it as a qualifier. You trust the government, but only if they are completely open about what they are doing. Which essentially means you don’t trust the government.

  8. But the other problem is that you assume the aggregate general intrist is based only on the actual self interest of the general public (as opposed to the heavy influence weighed by special interest groups, the media, talk radio, and other spinsters). I don’t trust the general public because I believe that on the issues they are generally under educated. And because they generally are misinformed (purposely) by the people they get their information from. So, no I don’t trust the general public to make a decision about issues (like for example the S-Chip program) where their understanding of the issue only comes from the mouths of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh (who are known liars and distortionists). I will lay the same criticism toward hyper-liberal groups like MoveOn.org who have heavy interests. So I would rather trust the visible government because they can be held far more accountable that Rush or Beck or MoveOn. I also would warn against confusing me with you — we both know you don’t trust the government. I have more faith than you (though not complete) because I do not assume all politicians are corrupt. Should we continue for reform and more visibility? Absolutely, but like I said previously we had already agreed on it.

    Lastly, I would suggest against equating the arts with sports as, hopefully you agree, they are not equally supported. I also think libraries and art museums and the like are quite different than “entertainment industries”. Are we really going to equate the Toledo Museum of Art with the Franklin Park SuperCinema? But again, I do believe there are valid debates and points on both sides of the public funding for the arts argument. Now everyone knows on which side I stand in that debate.

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