During his hot-blooded adolescence, while grappling with the urgency of conversion and the pleasures of the flesh, St. Augustine, of the famous “Confessions,” is said to have prayed:
“Lord, grant me chastity and self-control – but not just yet.”
President Obama may have uttered something similar to himself last week, as he delivered a speech criticizing pet spending project earmarks in the morning and announcing new guidelines designed to curb them, and in the afternoon, away from the cameras, signed a $410 billion spending bill containing at least 8,500 earmarks costing more than $7.7 billion.
Earmarks, as defined by Citizens Against Government Waste, a respected watchdog group, are special spending projects not requested by the agency receiving the money and are inserted into appropriations bills, usually at the last minute and without committee hearings, by individual members of Congress. Depending on just how you define them, they are but a small piece of total discretionary federal spending, between 1 percent and 3 percent. But they are an important symbol of bipartisan congressional profligacy with our money.
It is possible to defend some earmarks, and some members of Congress do so publicly, arguing that as the representatives of their home districts they know its needs better than faraway bureaucrats to whom a new recreation center or swimming pool is nothing more than a mark on a gigantic ledger page. Some earmarks may be defensible, but they are often the source of the subtle corruption that permeates the entire appropriations process. Although some trails are carefully hidden, it is often possible to connect earmarks with campaign contributions from lobbyists or powerful local interests. The spending is supposed to be “for the people,” but ordinary people without big money or political connections seldom notice the purported benefits.
Obama’s reform proposals are modest. Congress members would have to publish on their Web sites all requests they make to appropriations committees – currently they only have to publish those that are granted. Agencies would have 20 days to deem proposals inappropriate, and agencies would have to conduct competitive bidding for earmarks targeted to private companies — but not for state and local government agencies (as if they never waste money!).
The lobbyists must be trembling in their Guccis.
Earmarks are mostly egregious, but until the public mindset changes away from seeing Washington as a giant piggy bank that can be raided any time and toward a serious demand for smaller, more limited government, earmarks will persist. Since the current administration seems to see larger, more ambitious government as a positive good, don’t expect much beyond empty rhetoric about responsibility and accountability.