Thursday, October 21, 2010

Far be it from us to defend John McCain, but...

Far be it from us to defend John McCain (R-AZ).  In our book Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks are Good for American Democracy we characterize earmark opponents like McCain as ranging from na├»ve to disingenuous.  McCain repeatedly claimed throughout the presidential campaign, and continues to claim, that he has never requested an earmark.  We have documentary evidence that demonstrates that he did request earmarks before he experienced a political rebirth in the wake of the Keating Five scandal. His claim is simply not supported by the evidence.[1]

This document illustrates that John McCain
supported a pair of earmarks included in
 an Interior Appropriations bill.
As a foe of government spending McCain was a vocal critic of President Obama’s stimulus bill.  He like many other Republicans characterized it as wasteful spending.  Recent revelations in the investigation by the Center for Public Integrity turned up evidence that John McCain lent at least tacit support for a transportation project promoted by the city of Phoenix in his home state.  Specifically he offered “conditional support” for funding to “accelerate the extension of the PHX Sky Train” at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.[2]

McCain’s behavior with regard to stimulus funding has been described as hypocritical. We object to that characterization of McCain’s behavior, and the behavior of others who sought stimulus funding for their states and districts.

Former Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas uttered the words that inspired the title of our book.  He said:

As I am fond of saying, if the Congress had a vote on whether to build a cheese factory on the Moon, I would oppose it based on what I know now, and I cannot imagine the circumstance under which I would support it. But on the other hand, if Congress in its lack of wisdom decided to start a cheese factory on the Moon, I would want a Texas firm to do the engineering, I would want a Texas construction firm to do the construction, I would want the milk to come from Texas cows, and I would want the celestial distribution center to be in Dallas, Texas, or College Station, Texas, or somewhere else in my State.[3]

In short, a member of Congress faced with what he or she considers bad policy has the responsibility to oppose that policy.  But once approved he or she has an equal responsibility to pursue the interests of their constituents, which includes pursuing funding for projects that will bring benefits to their states or districts.[4]

The story surrounding attempts by members of Congress to influence the expenditure of stimulus funds is a classic example of “gotcha politics.”  The stories trumpet the “hypocrisy” of politicians while ignoring  the larger significance of the story: Earmarks allow members of Congress to target spending to projects promoted by their constituents and they allow their constituents to pass judgment on the member and his or her earmarks. Instead by passing an earmark free bill spending decisions were pushed into the dark recesses of the bureaucracy. Back-channel politics—members of Congress attempting to influence bureaucratic decision making—on the other hand is very difficult to identify and bring into the light, and bureaucrats lack democratic accountability.  In short, earmarks are good for democracy.

[1] For instance in a letter to Robert Byrd dated June 29, 1987 (Right) he defends over a million dollars in earmarks in the Interior spending bill for two wildlife areas in Arizona saying “they have outstanding wildlife value including being home to several endangered species.”
[2] Ashley Parker “For McCain, Stimulus Money Questions” accessed October 19, 2010.
[3] Adam Meyerson, "The Genius of Ordinary People," Interview with Sen. Phil Gramm, Heritage Foundation Policy Review 50 (Fall 1989): 11-12.
[4] See a previous essay by us: “Why Cheese Factories on the Moon?” accessed October 19, 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

Once Again Earmarks Prove to be the Better Choice for our Democracy

NPR Reporter Audie Cornish is reporting on efforts by members of Congress to influence the expenditure of stimulus funds in their states and districts (  Capitalizing on leaked documents and records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act the Center for Public Integrity demonstrates that foes of the stimulus who voted against the legislation--and those who trumpeted the fact that the legislation was earmark free--subsequent sent letters to the executive bureaucracy seeking to gain support for projects requested by their constituents.

One of the central arguments of Cheese Factories on the Moon is that in the absence of earmarks spending decisions will be pushed into the bureaucracy where it is difficult--often impossible--to identify how spending decisions are being made.  In fact, it takes herculean efforts involving FOIA requests and anonymous leaks to get the information.  In the meantime, the earmark process is now fully transparent, only requiring a few mouse clicks to determine who asked for what. 

It was especially amusing that the primary champions of abolishing earmarks in favor of "non-political" bureaucratic decision making, Taxpayers for Common Sense, featured prominently in the story, fail to grasp that their crusade against earmarks will ultimately push spending decisions further into the deepest, darkest recesses of the federal bureaucracy.   In fact, in the "good old days" before earmarks were "democratized"-- that is, they became used routinely outside of the members of the Appropriations Committee--the chairmen of the subcommittees would routinely make calls directly to the bureaucracy to direct how particular monies would be spent. 

The longtime Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Bill Natcher (D-KY), was famous for insisting on not including earmarks in his subcommittee's bills. Year after year he would pass bills that were earmark free.  Apocryphal stories abound of Senator Byrd on bended knee begging for an earmark in a final Labor-H bill only to be rebuffed by Natcher.  Once the bill was passed Natcher would simply call up the departments and let them know how the money was to be spent (a completely untraceable "phonemark").

We interviewed Ryan Alexander and Steve Ellis recently for our follow up book Pork: Who Gets What, How, and Why and they seemed, in our estimation, to have little understanding about the earmark process (that holds for most of the reformers we interviewed), or how the changes they promote would lead to LESS transparency rather than more.

Pushing spending decisions into the bureaucracy not only undermines transparency but it removes the element of democratic accountability that is present in the earmarking process.  Bureaucrats, as hard working and good intentioned as they may be, are not democratically accountable; if they make bad decisions we have no democratic means of removing them from office.  Members of Congress, on the other hand, are democratically accountable; if they champion a bad earmark they can be voted out of office and, with the recent changes in the transparency of earmarks we have all the information to act on our democratic impulses if voters choose to.