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Archive for the ‘Earmarks’ Category

I’ve written before about the sleazy and corrupting impact of earmarks.

And I’ve debunked the lobbyist arguments in favor of earmarks.

Heck, I’ve even done NPR interviews about this unseemly Washington practice.

So I like to think I’m reasonably knowledgeable about the system. But even I’m shocked to learn how a former Massachusetts Congressman has taken graft to the next level.

And I’m slightly happy that he’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and feels compelled to give up his share of the loot.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the New York Times.

A former congressman who became a lobbyist has abandoned his plans to collect $90,000 from working on an energy project that he helped finance through Congress. …An apologetic Mr. Delahunt told town officials he wanted to eliminate the “black mark” created by questions of a possible financial conflict, Patrick Cannon, chairman of the Hull Light Board, said on Saturday. …Mr. Delahunt, a Democrat who retired from Congress last year, had faced criticism for the last week from legal and ethics specialists over the unusual lobbying arrangement he had struck with the town, which is seeking federal help to build an offshore wind energy plant at a cost of more than $60 million. While in Congress, Mr. Delahunt earmarked $1.7 million for the same project, and he was to be paid 80 percent of his monthly consulting fees out of that same pot of money. …Mr. Delahunt and executives at his firm did not respond to e-mails Saturday seeking further comment on the decision.

Wow. For all intents and purposes, Congressman Delahunt directly pilfered the Treasury for personal gain.

This is amazing. But what’s remarkable isn’t that he stole money. After all, the federal budget is largely a big scam enabling various groups of people to obtain unearned loot.

The noteworthy thing about this story is that he didn’t launder the money.

In most cases, politicians do earmarks as part of a corrupt quid pro quo. They direct money to a certain group of beneficiaries and, in exchange, get campaign contributions from both the lobbyists who facilitated the deal and the interest groups that receive the taxpayer funds.

But Delahunt cut out one of the middlemen. He created an earmark, and then became one of the lobbyists pocketing the cash.

So it is poetic justice that this unsavory deal has become public knowledge and the former Congressman has been shamed into giving up his fees.

But don’t be deluded into thinking this is a victory.

The earmark is still there. Money is still being wasted. Delahunt is still a lobbyist. Government is still too big. And corruption is still rampant.

And if you think the former Congressman is genuinely apologetic….well, please get in touch with me. I’m selling a bridge in Brooklyn and need a gullible buyer – i.e., the kind of person who doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with this unseemly example of sleaze.

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Since I’m involuntarily forced to finance National Public Radio, I guess I should be happy that free-market views occasionally are allowed on air. Click here to listen to a segment where I talk about earmarks, “phonemarks,” and special interest corruption in Washington.

The risky part of a pre-recorded interview is that you never know what the journalist will use. If the person interviewing you is biased, they can use a quote out of context to make you appear stupid, or use an incomplete quote to distort the meaning of your words. That did not happen in this case. The NPR interviewer, at least to my ear, was quite fair.

I wish the segment had been longer, however, so I could have explained why even “honest” earmarks are wrong. Let’s say that Congressman Smith or Senator Jones inserts an earmark, or makes a phonemark, to get funding for a sewer system. It’s quite possible that such a request is completely untainted by corruption (other than the run-of-the-mill practice of trying to buy votes with other people’s money).

But that doesn’t make it right. One of the reasons why federalism is such a good idea is that money is much more likely to be spent wisely is if it is raised at the state and local level and people at those levels decide how it should be allocated.

This doesn’t mean there is no corruption, insider deal-making, or special-interest shenanigans. That’s an inevitable part of government. But federalism at least makes it easier for people to monitor how their money is being spent – and to escape if they think their state or local government is going overboard with bad behavior.

In other words, centralization of government is a bad idea. This is why big government in Washington is worse than big government at the state and local level. And it’s why big government from the European Union in Brussels is worse than big government in Rome, Berlin, or Stockholm.

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There’s a lot of attention being paid to yesterday’s landslide vote in the House to prevent a big tax increase next year. If you’re a glass-half-full optimist, you will be celebrating the good news for taxpayers. If you’re a glass-half empty pessimist, you will be angry because the bill also contains provisions to increase the burden of government spending as well as some utterly corrupt tax loopholes added to the legislation so politicians could get campaign cash from special interest groups.

If you want some unambiguously good news, however, ignore the tax deal and celebrate the fact that Senator Harry Reid had to give up his attempt to enact a pork-filled, $1 trillion-plus spending bill. This “omnibus appropriation” not only had an enormous price tag, it also contained about 6,500 earmarks. As I explained in the New York Post yesterday, earmarks are “…special provisions inserted on behalf of lobbyists to benefit special interests. The lobbyists get big fees, the interest groups get handouts and the politicians get rewarded with contributions from both. It’s a win-win-win for everyone — except the taxpayers who finance this carousel of corruption.”

This sleazy process traditionally has enjoyed bipartisan support, and many Republican Senators initially were planning to support the legislation notwithstanding the voter revolt last month. But the insiders in Washington underestimated voter anger at bloated and wasteful government. Thanks to talk radio, the Internet (including sites like this one), and a handful of honest lawmakers, Reid’s corrupt legislation suddenly became toxic.

The resulting protests convinced GOPers, even the big spenders from the Appropriations Committee, that they could no longer play the old game of swapping earmarks for campaign cash. This is a remarkable development and a huge victory for the Tea Party movement. Here’s part of the Washington Post report on this cheerful development.

Senate Democrats on Thursday abandoned their efforts to approve a comprehensive funding bill for the federal government after Republicans rebelled against its $1.2 trillion cost and the inclusion of nearly 7,000 line-item projects for individual lawmakers. …Instead, a slimmed-down resolution that would fund the government mostly at current levels will come before the Senate, and Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it will pass by Saturday. …The majority leader’s surrender on the spending bill marked a final rebuke for this Congress to the old-school system of funding the government, in which the barons of the Appropriations Committee decided which states would receive tens of millions of dollars each year. …Almost every Senate Republican had some favor in the bill, but as voter angst about runaway deficits grew before the midterm elections, Republicans turned against the earmark practice.

This is a very positive development heading into next year, but it is not a permanent victory. Some Republicans are true believers in the cause of limited government, but there are still plenty of corrupt big spenders as well as some Bush-style “compassionate conservatives” who think buying votes with other people’s money somehow makes one a caring person.

In other words, fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Partiers have won an important battle, but this is just one skirmish in a long war. If we want to save America from becoming another Greece, we better make sure that we redouble our efforts next year. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

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I haven’t commented much on earmarks, but an oped in today’s Washington Post was has goaded me into action. A former Reagan Administration appointee (the Gipper must be spinning in his grave), who now makes a living by selling our money to the highest bidder, made several ridiculous assertions, including:

…earmarks are largely irrelevant to balancing the budget. The $16.5 billion Congress spent on earmarks in fiscal year 2009 sounds like a lot, but leaves a minuscule footprint – about 1 percent of 2009′s $1.4 trillion deficit. Those seriously concerned about deficits should look elsewhere for meaningful spending reductions. …On Capitol Hill, party leaders must appeal to lawmakers’ interests as well as their principles to get the votes they need. The leaders must be able to offer incentives – such as earmarks – to win votes on difficult issues. Earmarks are not the only possible incentives, nor do they need to be the most compelling ones. But they are a tool for taking care of members who might otherwise stray.

The author is right that earmarks technically are not a big share of the budget. But he conveniently forgets to address the real issue, which is the degree to which earmarks are the proverbial apple in the congressional Garden of Eden. Members who otherwise might want to defend taxpayers are lured into becoming part of the problem. This is how I described the process in a recent PolitiFact article.

Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, …adds that the existence of earmarks increases the upward pressure on federal spending indirectly, since lawmakers “know they need to support the relevant powers on the spending committees in order to have their earmarks approved.” Mitchell calls earmarks a “gateway drug” that “seduces members into treating the federal budget as a good thing that can be milked for home-state/district projects.”

Since the author of the Washington Post column is trying, at least in part, to appeal to advocates of smaller government, I’m also puzzled that he says earmarks are good because they help grease the wheels so that more legislation can be passed. Does he really think reminding us about the “Cornhusker Kickback” and “Louisiana Purchase” will make us more sympathetic to his argument? Yes, it’s theoretically possible that congressional leaders will use earmarks to help pass legislation shrinking the burden of government. It’s also possible that I’ll play centerfield next year for the Yankees. But I’m not holding my breath for either of these things to happen.

Last but not least, earmarks are utterly corrupt. The fact that they are legal does not change the fact that they finance a racket featuring big payoffs to special interests, who give big fees to lobbyists (often former staffers and Members), who give big contributions to  politicians. Everyone wins…except taxpayers.

This is one of the many reasons why I did this video a couple of years ago with the simple message that big government means big corruption.

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