Mitch McConnell likes to play both sides of the fence. Republicans built their midterm election resurgence on promises to cut spending, and by adopting Tea Party demands for Washington to reverse its course. McConnell sounded agreeable, even resolute, when he assented to a non-binding GOP earmark moratorium:
I have to lead first by example. Nearly every day that the Senate’s been in session for the past two years, I have come down to this spot and said that Democrats are ignoring the wishes of the American people. When it comes to earmarks, I won’t be guilty of the same thing.1
McConnell began his Senate career in 1984, so he knows the ways of Washington, and the importance of leaving a back door ajar. His vow of abstinence does not begin until the 112th Congress,2 which left him free to indulge in one last earmark frenzy. The Senator’s name was embarrassingly prominent on the $8 billion list of special projects in the 2011 Omnibus Spending Bill.
The problem with banning earmarks is that the only bad earmarks are those proposed by someone else, preferably a someone else belonging to the opposition party. When McConnell proclaimed that he would support the earmark moratorium, he set his sights high. Instead of criticizing legislators, which would include himself, he blamed presidential discretionary spending:
Over the years, I have seen presidents of both parties seek to acquire total discretion over appropriations. And I’ve seen presidents of both parties waste more taxpayer dollars on meritless projects, commissions, and programs than every congressional earmark put together.3
McConnell’s earmarks, fortunately, are of the necessary variety:
Contrast this with truly vital projects I have supported back home in Kentucky, such as the work we’ve done in relation to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Western Kentucky.4
There is no mention of earmark reform in the Republican Pledge to America. The word “earmark” does not appear in the document. The phrase “term limits” is not in the Pledge, either, which is unfortunate, because the absence of congressional term limits has a lot to do with why earmarks are such a problem. Despite taxpayer protests over government spending, legislators are expected to bring projects home with them, and longevity on Capitol Hill can depend on the ability to steer funding. The longer legislators stay in office, the better they become at the earmark game, and the harder it is to divest them of the habit.
We should shelve the idea of an earmark moratorium, which is doomed by the term “non-binding.” Legislation banning earmarks is also a waste of time, because no bill is foolproof, and the practice would quickly resurrect itself through craftily planted loopholes. Instead of creating artificial barriers that everyone knows will be circumvented, we need to take a novel approach.
The right way to ban earmarks is to require those who benefit to pay for them. If a town receives funding to build a water treatment facility, the taxpayers of that town can cough up the money to reimburse Uncle Sam. If a state university receives money to build a new library, the university can send a check. Instead of spreading costs across the country so that those we require to pay for projects never enjoy the benefits, this method ensures that those who benefit are the ones who pay. Of course, many projects will suddenly become less essential, they will no longer be valuable at election time, and a good number will be discarded altogether when they are brought home as invoices instead of trophies. In fact, if taxpayers foot the bill for their own special projects, then Washington never needs to be involved in the first place. And that it is how it should be.