Monday, May 9, 2011

Earmarks for the ages…

Long lost records from the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a story on the blog Booktryst. The records, contained in bound volumes discovered by a Northern California rare book collector, cover the years 1870 through the early 1900s. According to Stephen Gertz:

The ledgers, written almost exclusively in pen - both black and red ink – with some entries and notations in pencil, enumerate the annual appropriations for:
I. Agriculture, Army, Fortifications, Pensions, Post-Office, 1870-1909.
II. Diplomatic, District of Columbia Appropriations.
III. Legislative Appropriations, 1870-1901.
IV. Military Academy, Naval Appropriations, 1870-1909.
V. Sundry Civil Appropriations, 1870-1901.

Even a quick glance at the few high quality photos of individual pages at the Booktryst site reveals that earmarks are not a recent phenomenon. If one accepts the typical definition of an earmark (an expenditure targeted for a specific purpose in a specific location) then each page of these ledgers is replete with earmarks. Take for instance the provision on this page (right) for the Navy Yard at Mare Island, California (that’s a pretty specific location!). Among the specific expenditures indicated is a cottage for the electrician, navy yard roads, and a shed over the galvanizing plant (those are some pretty specific projects!).

The moral of the story is that when money is appropriated it must be spent somewhere and it must be spent on something. From the beginning of the Republic Congress assumed its responsibility under Article I, section 9 of the constitution to appropriate funds. How did it accomplish this? By allocating geographic and project specific expenditures as is illustrated in these ledgers. Earmarks are not “new,” they are as old as the Republic and, practically speaking, necessary.

The “criminalization” of earmarks by groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense and the media seriously undermines what was historically a congressional power aimed at vesting the “power of the purse” in the institution most directly accountable to the people. Advocates of banning earmarks are at odds with our Republican principles and, as these documents illustrate, at odds with our history.

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