President Bush has just signed the long-debated ethics bill, which Democrats are trumpeting as helping “drain the swamp” of corruption, in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-SF) words. However it is hardly “the start of a new day in Washington” that Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) called it.
The core reform in the bill is requiring that earmark sponsors be identified. Unfortunately, naming those sponsors will not deter much pork nor substantially change the bipartisan culture of corruption.
Naming earmark sponsors won’t deter much pork primarily because politicians already trumpet what they “bring home” for constituents. Identifying them as sponsors only repeats what beneficiaries already know. It deters gifts for favored constituents at others’ expense just as much as identifying Santa as the source of Christmas presents deters him. New information is only provided to “outsiders” who are forced to pay. But they cannot vote on that representative anyway, so any “increased accountability” is only to those without electoral influence.
Revealing earmark sponsors might enable others in Congress to pressure the worst abusers to scale back their plunder. But history provides little hope in that regard. Even poster children for outrageous waste are seldom undone by negative publicity. The only earmarks in real danger are from those who dare to question others’ egregious pork projects.
Further, political incentives ensure that abuses will continue.
Earmarks arise from the political dominance of special interests. Beneficiaries who gain substantially know it and support those who “deliver” them. The rest of us, who must finance them, however, each lose only a little. Therefore we are uninformed and uninvolved. Special interests win, though the money raised often finances ads claiming “we do it all for you.”
Eliminating earmark abuses faces the same problem, in reverse. Eliminating an earmark hurts a small, organized group substantially. They oppose it, backed by threats to withdraw support. But since it benefits others only a small amount each, they hardly notice. So representatives attract substantially more votes by bringing home more of their own pork than by eliminating others’ pork or really reforming the system. As a result, special interests are very effective at defending their hard-stolen gains.
The pork-deterring power of naming earmark sponsors is reinforced by redistricting and seniority. The many “safe” gerrymandered districts are virtually impervious to serious electoral challenge, so a few unhappy voters pose little threat to most incumbents. Further, the greatest abusers are those who have risen to the most powerful positions. That means their beneficiaries also have the most largesse to lose if they allow real earmark reform. It also means that most potential congressional reformers have too much future pork at stake, when they get more seniority on important committees, to risk alienating the power brokers currently skimming the most from the system.
Identifying the sponsors of congressional earmarks sounds like a real reform. But it is image, not substance. If “reformers” were serious, they would simply eliminate earmarks. They are special interest largesse that cannot meet even the minimal standards of regular budget horse-trading; the indefensible bait used to lure the corrupt influence those in Congress supposedly want to eliminate. They sell out Americans’ general welfare, whose defense is legislators’ central task.
Keeping earmarks, but identifying sponsors, imposes virtually no cost on those who push them, especially when compounded by the “new and improved” evasions already employed by the “reformers.” It does virtually nothing to deter Washington’s “culture of corruption.” The reforms Democrats are trumpeting are largely window dressing, behind which the game of mutual extortion of Americans can be continued. The main “reform” under Democratic control is that that they now get a larger “cut” of the pork than the 40% they got under Republican control (while decrying it as Republican corruption). If their leadership wants credit for that as a major accomplishment, voters should tell them “stick it in your earmark.”