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.

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