Something that’s long puzzled me is the idea that bringing more transparency to the earmark process would reduce earmarking. John McCain spent the summer of 2008 running around the country promising to name-and-shame earmarkers. “I’ll make them famous,” was one of his lines. But getting famous is the whole idea. I noticed earlier today that Ben Nelson’s website dramatizes this in a particularly clear way:
The thing that would reduce earmarking would be the reverse of transparency. If you couldn’t brag to your constituents about all the bacon you’d brought home, then there’d be less reason for members to spend their time on it.
Mr. Murtha, a 76-year-old Marine veteran schooled in the blunt-knuckle deal-making that defined politics here, is contrition-free when it comes to his success.
“If I’m corrupt, it’s because I take care of my district,” Mr. Murtha said. “My job as a member of Congress is to make sure that we take care of what we see is necessary. Not the bureaucrats who are unelected over there in whatever White House, whether it’s Republican or Democrat. Those bureaucrats would like to control everything. Every president would like to have all the power and not have Congress change anything. But we’re closest to the people.”
Murtha’s remarks recall another one of CREW’s most corrupt lawmakers, Rep. Don Young (R-AK), who defended his controversial earmarks on the House floor in 2007. “I was always proud of my earmarks. I believe in earmarks, always have, as long as they are exposed. But don’t you ever call that a scandal,” said Young.
I think we all understand the dynamic by which the earmark for your district is a wasteful boondoggle, whereas the earmark for my district is addressing serious problems in a concrete way. But the way this game is supposed to work is that we both vote for the bill since we’re both more interested in claiming credit for our own project than we are in complaining about each other’s projects.
It’s win-win, basically, though it does result in a structural misallocation of funds toward regions that happen to have politically powerful elected officials.
With the stimulus bill, though, the opposition (mostly Republicans, but but Democrats too) perfected a new approach to this. First the denounced the whole thing as unnecessary wasteful spending. Then they all voted against it. Then many members turned around, went home, and started bragging about all the good stuff they’d brought home to their district. Now it seems that Reps. Pete Hoekstra and Mario Diaz-Balert are up to the same tricks with the omnibus appropriations bill.
It’s not surprising, I guess; having gotten away with this once in the future probably everyone will be doing it.
As ThinkProgress has observed, conservative lawmakers such as Sens. David Vitter (R-LA), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) have slammed the omnibus spending bill for including earmarks — despite the fact that many of those earmarks were their own. In a speech today on earmark reform, President Obama called out legislators for having this double standard:
OBAMA: Now, let me be clear: Done right, earmarks give legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their district, and that’s why I have opposed their outright elimination. I also find it ironic that some of those who railed the loudest against this bill because of earmarks actually inserted earmarks of their own – and will tout them in their own states and districts.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) tweets his response to Obama’s speech: “No time is better than the present to undertake earmark reform Mr. President”
Recently, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has tweeted a series of top 10 lists of “porkiest projects” in the omnibus spending bill, criticizing “beaver management” and even funding for school construction. Last month, one of his tweets was an earmark in the omnibus spending bill for “mormon crickets”
@SenJohnMcCain: #6 $1 million for mormon cricket control in Utah – is that the species of cricket or a game played by the brits?
The line has since been embraced by the right wing as an example of wasteful spending. Today, the earmark’s sponsor, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) explained his rationale in a tense interview with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, who accused Bennett of abusing federal funds for pet projects. “Why is it an earmark to begin with?” she pressed. Bennett fired back at Kelly: “Okay, will you calm down for a minute?” The Utah senator then took a shot at McCain:
KELLY: The only debate I’ve heard is John McCain telling you that this is the sixth porkiest earmark he sees in the bill.
BENNETT: Well, that may be because the Mormon crickets only infest Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. Maybe we ought to shoot some of them over the border into Arizona. But they go wherever they go. And again, the authorizing committee that examines these things is fully aware of it.
So-called “Mormon crickets” are actually an invasive cicada species that decimates crops across the West regularly. In 2000, the infestations cost Utah alone $22 million in crop damages. The cricket infestation in 2003 caused at least $25 million in damages. “We are going to eradicate the crickets [with the funds]. And they infest at highest point 3.5 million acres — most of which is public lands. … The crops…are being destroyed on public lands,” Bennett explained.
Bennett noted that eliminating earmarks doesn’t save federal dollars, and he scolded Fox News’s reporting. “If the money were not earmarked for this purpose, it would still be spent. That is, the Dept. of Agriculture would spend it someplace else,” he said. “So do not deceive your listeners and your viewers.”
In an interview on Laura Ingraham’s radio show today, Vitter defended himself against charges that his position is hypocritical. “I don’t think it’s wrong to advocate for specific priorities in your state if it doesn’t change your opinion about an overall bill, which I think in this case is way too bloated,” said Vitter.
Pressed by Ingraham about whether it was “worth it to put these earmarks in,” Vitter said that “the important bottom line” was that he would vote against “a bloated bill, $410 billion”:
VITTER: Laura, I understand your argument. I think the important bottom line is when the vote comes, does David Vitter or Murkowski or Bond or anyone else vote for a bloated bill, $410 billion in this case. I can tell you what my answer is going to be. Ever since I’ve known the size and scope of this bill, I’ve said that’s way out of line. It’s 8 percent increase in these areas of the federal government, which is the most since Jimmy Carter.
Vitter continually said that the bill is too “bloated,” but he never suggested that he would be willing to do his part to slim it down by cutting his own earmarks. Considering that the bill is expected to pass, Vitter appears ready to take credit for the earmarked projects after voting against the bill.
Vitter claimed that “ever since” he learned the bill’s price tag, he has said that it was “way out of line.” This claim, however, is questionable. The House passed the $410 billion omnibus on Feb. 25, but as recently as March 1st he was telling his constituents that he was undecided about how he would vote on it.
A very shrewd post by Mark Schmitt explores why it is that Republicans like Lindsay Graham who profess to hate earmarks can’t actually bring themselves to give up their own earmarks; his conclusion cuts wider than petty hypocrisy:
There’s nothing partisan about earmarks — Republicans do it, Democrats do it, and if you were a member of Congress, you’d do it, too. But for the moment, Republicans are far more dependent than Democrats on their ability to take some credit for federally funded projects. In the world with earmarks, Lindsay Graham is able to stand against the president on stimulus, on the budget, on Iraq, on health care. And then he’s able to go home, cut a ribbon, get his picture in the paper, and tell everyone that he delivered the money for the new Myrtle Beach Convention Center.
But in a world without earmarks, what does Lindsay Graham bring home? Just words, and great stories about how he fought bravely against health care and economic stimulus.
Whereas a Democrat in a world without earmarks will be able to go home, ideally, and tell her constituents that she supported a popular president, that she helped rescue the economy, that she’s moving us toward universal health care.
Of course a certain number of Republicans are so solidly safe that they can get along one way or the other. But the bulk of members of congress need to be able to say to constituents and donors alike that they’ve done something. And absent earmarks, that would require members of the minority to forge some kind of compromises with members of the majority on the big issues of the day. Which is precisely what almost no Republicans seem inclined to do at the moment.
“I voted to take all earmarks out, but I will come back in the new process and put that back in,” Graham insisted, saying that the convention center is important to stimulate the local economy. “I think I should have the ability as a United States senator to direct money back to my state as long as it’s transparent and it makes sense.”
Congress is expected to approve the omnibus appropriations bill this week.
On Meet the Press, Graham also explained why nationalizing the banks would be a prudent move.
You understand why politics might get up to dumb gimmicks. They’re trying to get press, they’re trying to get elected, whatever. But even though lots of people do it, I genuinely don’t understand why someone would go into political journalism despite a total lack of interest in trying to actually inform the public. If you want to operate with a reckless disregard for the consequences of your actions, there’s a lot more money to be had in banking. At any rate, Maureen Dowd loves John McCain’s Twitter feed:
$1 million for Mormon cricket control in Utah. “Is that the species of cricket or a game played by the brits?” McCain tweeted. …
$2 million “for the promotion of astronomy” in Hawaii, as McCain twittered, “because nothing says new jobs for average Americans like investing in astronomy.” …
$200,000 for a tattoo removal violence outreach program to help gang members or others shed visible signs of their past. “REALLY?” McCain twittered.
The tattoo removal anti-crime program has already been dealt with in some detail. But it’s worth dwelling on this for a bit. The cost per-prisoner of incarcerating someone for a year is enormous. If this program generates as little as ten person-years less of imprisonment that’s a net fiscal benefit to the government even if you ignore the benefits of reducing crime which, obviously, would be absurd. In other words, the marginal benefit of preventing a serious violent crime is extremely high—much higher than might be apparent if you didn’t bother to consider the issue at all. Which is exactly how McCain proceeds.
And McCain’s method of indentifying waste, gleefully repeated by Dowd, is a disgrace. His technique is to focus on programs that mention animals or food, or anything that sounds silly. He’s clearly not interested in learning whether any of the programs he targets have merit. [...] I don’t know whether or not cricket control is a necessary program. Maybe crickets are doing many times that amount in crop damage every year. Maybe it’s a boondoggle. I don’t know about the astronomy program, either, though I do think there’s a role for federal support of the sciences, even in silly-sounding places like Hawaii.
I’m just a blogger, not a U.S. Senator or a powerful newspaper columnist with access to a research assistant, but it’s not so difficult to make some inquiries into this sort of thing. What’s the deal with Mormon crickets? Well “Mormon crickets become pests very sporadically (about once or twice in a decade) when populations build to high levels and they migrate over large areas. If an alfalfa field is in the path of a migration, Mormon crickets can cause severe damage by devouring the plants.” Are Mormon crickets a problem this year? It seems they are. Now that bit of Googling is hardly the last word on this, but we’re at least getting somewhere. Dowd and McCain both have a lot of resources at their disposal and big megaphones—maybe they should try to figure this stuff out and help people distinguish the worthy programs from the wasteful ones instead of just making jokes.
Yesterday, his #1 porkiest project was the Oregon Solar Highway:
As Danny Glover points out at AirCongress, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, whose home state stands to benefit from the earmark, didn’t appreciate McCain’s sarcasm and he tweeted his displeasure:
The Oregon Solar Highway is “the nation’s first solar panel project on a major U.S. highway,” which seeks to use a row of solar panels about five feet wide and two football fields long to feed electricity directly into Portland General Electric’s systemwide grid. It is meant to “account for 28 percent of the energy needed to power lights that illuminate the highway’s sweeping interchange at night.”