Dishonesty and Insults Are Not the Ways to Earn Our Trust, Senator Inhofe

| November 12, 2010 | 7 Replies

Republican Senator and conservative icon James Inhofe has disgraced himself and his conservative beliefs today. In an op-ed that appeared at National Review’s The Corner blog he chose to defend earmarks not with principle and defensible logic but with half-truths, ridiculous assertions, and a main argument so risible that I find it hard to believe he can look himself in the mirror today.

Let me sum up his main points in support of pork:

  1. Earmarks don’t cut Federal spending at all. Without earmarks, some evil President would just spend that money on frivolous projects instead of the vital and necessary ones chosen now by members of Congress.
  2. Earmarks promote fiscal responsibility as members of Congress can ensure that tax money is spent on worthwhile programs like body armor for our soldiers that no President would ever otherwise approve.
  3. Earmarks have always been with us and are a Founder-approved part of the appropriations process.
  4. Talk of an earmark ban is actually a ruse. If he didn’t have to spend his time dealing with this issue, he’d be out there cutting spending like nobody’s business.

Each of these points deserve as strong a rebuttal as I can muster. Unfortunately, that means this post is going to be a lot longer than I want it to be. But I think it’s important to refute Imhofe’s self-serving piffle as completely as possible, if for no other reason than to serve notice to him that the days when he and his ilk could throw a weak curveball past the electorate are over. We are a lot smarter than he believes and we’re no longer willing to simply sit quietly as he and his lay an immoral and un-American level of debt on us and ours to serve their own electoral interests.

Let me first say that Imhofe seems to take the matter of earmarks as an “either-or” proposition, that is that we either get an earmark ban or we get substantial spending cuts. There is no reason at all for him to believe that. Earmarks are, as he wrote, a very small percentage of the overall budget. No one claims otherwise. Indeed, no one claims that an earmark moratorium will magically shrink the size of government or turn the GOP into a bunch of Scrubbing Bubbles, who will scour the books clear of waste, fraud, abuse, and spending that should be done by states and local government.

Then again, there’s no proof that earmarks has a good effect on spending either. As his Republican counterpart in the House Jeff Flake notes in a competing piece, oversight has fallen off dramatically in the past twenty years while earmarks have increased. Unless Inhofe’s contention is that earmarks are the only things holding Congress back from an even bigger spending problem, which would be a remarkable confession of political impotence, then he’s simply wrong. But then, he’s wrong about quite a bit. Let me take his points, in order as he presented them. I’ll have to do quite a bit of quoting, so bear with me.

1) Earmarks and spending: Inhofe maintains that, even if we ban earmarks, we won’t actually cut spending because that money will just go back into the appropriations pool.

Instead of putting the money back into the pockets of the American people by reducing spending or shrinking the deficit, these efforts to eliminate earmarks would have put more money into the hand of President Obama by allowing his administration to spend the money as he saw fit. At the end of the day, none would have saved money.

That’s true, but what Inhofe doesn’t tell you is how those earmarks get into appropriations bills. Actually, he does, but he’s not entirely honest about it. Let me give you his quote.

The flawed Obama stimulus bill famously did not contain a single congressional earmarks, yet, as we found out long after the fact, those tax dollars were spent on hundreds of frivolous items such as a clown show in Pennsylvania, studying the mating decisions of the female cactus bug, and a helicopter able to detect radioactive rabbit droppings, to name a few. What all of these have in common is that they were spent by presidential earmarks, not congressional earmarks. Similarly, as faceless bureaucrats in the executive branch have continually taken greater responsibility over federal expenditures, lobbyists are increasingly turning to them, not Congress, for money.

Unlike congressional earmarks, which are posted online prior to the expenditure and approved by representatives who must face the voters, executive spending is in the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats, and we often do not find out about these expenditures until years after the fact.

There’s so much wrong here that I hardly know where to begin. First, the “Obama stimulus plan” was voted on by Congress, we knew about most of the frivolous earmarks in it, and Congress most definitely put its greedy little mark on the bill before it was ever signed into law. While it’s true that most of the money was, and continues to be, doled out by bureaucrats, it’s not true that they were “Presidential earmarks”. As Inhofe argues later, the power to spend our tax money belongs to Congress alone, and Congress alone is responsible for passing the Vote Buying Act Stimulus Bill.

And if Congress doesn’t find out about all the frivolous uses of our money until years later, that’s also Congress’ fault. See, Congress also has the power to call oversight hearings, but remember Congressman Flake’s contention that oversight has decreased while earmarks have increased. Someone isn’t doing their job up there on Capitol Hill and it’s not the President. More on that later.

His point about Congressional earmarks is more than a little dishonest as well. See, few earmarks are actually in clear public view before they become law, thanks to something called the conference committee. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, 99 percent of the 1805 earmarks that went into the Labor/HHS/Education Appropriations bill in 2003 were added in conference. Ninety-eight percent of the 3,071 earmarks in the 2005 Labor/HHS/Education Appropriations bill were added in conference. Since 2004, Congress added earmarks for the Joint Strike Fighter Alternate Engine totaling over $1.2 billion in conference. Members of Congress packed over 300 new projects into the 2008 appropriations bills in conference.

As you can see, most of the earmarking happens behind closed doors, in a process that doesn’t include every member of Congress and frequently involves the sort of horsetrading that the voters despise. Of course, if the Senator told you that, he’d sound less like a steadfast champion of fiscal sanity and more like a guy who is trying to protect his own little feifdom where he gets to decide where tens of millions of your dollars are spent.

2) Earmarks promote fiscal responsibility: Yes, this one made me do a double-take as well, but here’s how he argues the point.

Banning earmarks has significant unintended consequences. Proponents of the ban like to say that earmarking is bad policy. To say this is to say that it is bad policy to provide improved armor for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — which has saved lives — or that it is bad policy to have the Predator drone program that has been vital in the War on Terrorism. Both are examples of congressional earmarks that would have never been funded by any administration. An across-the-board ban has the unintended consequence of eliminating useful spending. To be clear, there are many spending proposals that should be defeated. But we should defeat them based on the substance, not simply because they are called earmarks. There are often bad ideas proposed that should not become law, but no one thinks we should ban all legislation.

This may be the most egregious thing I’ve read this week. Does Inhofe really believe that people like me who wants earmarks gone also want our soldiers to wear inferior body armor or want the Predator drone system to disappear? And does he really expect us to believe that no Presidential administration would ever have approved those projects, that only one brave member of Congress could ahve done it with an earmark? How utterly silly. Just because that’s how those programs came to be doesn’t mean that how they should have come to be. It is frankly offensive of him to make such a brainless pair of accusations.

You know, I have a way to solve this problem that doesn’t involve thousands of bribes paid to voters and campaign contributors (and let’s be honest, that’s what earmarks really are). If Senator Inhofe really wants to spend a certain amount of money on improved body armor for soldiers, then let him introduce the bill, argue his point, and win the votes for it. Such an idea, huh? That would take it out of the President’s hands almost entirely (except for the possibility of a veto, and it’s silly to believe that every President would veto such a program, as he claims). Certainly he’s capable of that, else he wouldn’t be a veteran Senator. Any program that’s good enough to be authorized by an earmark ought to be good enough to withstand a clear up or down vote. If it’s not, then obviously it wasn’t all that good an idea, wouldn’t you say?

3) Earmarks have always been with us: This point would have been more stunningly inane, except that it occurred in close proximity to his accusation that earmark opponents want the terrorists to win.

Earmarks have been part of the congressional process since the founding of our country. As James Madison, the father of the Constitution viewed it, appropriating funds is the job of the legislature. Writing in the Federalist, he noted that Congress holds the power of the purse for the very reason that it is closer to the people. The words of Madison and Article 1 Section 9 of the Constitution say that authorization and appropriations are exclusively the responsibility of the legislative branch. Congress should not cede this authority to the executive branch.

I have a couple copies of the Constitution and I’m sure that the word “earmark” doesn’t appear anywhere in either one. I really don’t understand Inhofe’s argument here, because he has conflated “earmarks” with “appropriations”. They are not the same. Nothing in the Constitution, indeed nothing in any writing of any of the Founders supports the modern earmark process and he’s wrong when he claims that earmarks have always been with us. According to this report by Americans for Prosperity, the first instance of what we might recognize today as an earmark happened in 1817 when John C. Calhoun proposed to take money from one federal fund and spend it on highway building on the grounds that the General Welfare clause allowed it. That bill was vetoed by none other than President James Madison, who wrote,

Having considered the bill … I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling this bill with the Constitution of the United States. … The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified … in the … Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.

[...]

Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms ‘common defense and general welfare’ embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.

So while Madison certainly believed that Congress was responsible for spending public money, he did not favor Congress using that power to do what today we call earmarking. Furthermore, for most of our nation’s history, earmarks were fairly rare.

Taxpayers for Common Sense calculated that the 1970 Defense Appropriations Bill had a dozen earmarks; the 1980 bill had 62 earmarks; and by 2005, the defense bill had skyrocketed to 2,671 earmarks. The most recent bill spends money on anything from the eradication of brown tree snakes in Guam, to a virtual reality spray paint simulator system in Pine City, Minnesota. (And remember, this is the Defense Appropriations Bill. What do snakes and spray paint have to do with maintaining our nation’s security?)

The same story goes for the now notoriously larded-up Transportation Bill. When President Eisenhower proposed the first national highway bill a half century ago, there were two projects singled out for funding. Last August, when Congress passed the latest six year, $286.4 billion Transportation Bill, there were, by one estimate, 6,371 of these “special” projects, ranging from $200,000 for a deer avoidance system in Weedsport, N.Y., to $3 million for dust control mitigation on Arkansas’ rural roads.

Contrary to Inhofe’s statement, earmarks weren’t a part of Congress’ mission nor has it been a part of our federal government’s business for as long as we’ve been a nation. It’s only been a common practice for less than 60 of the 222 years we’ve had a Constitution, less than a third of the time we’ve been around.

4) The earmarks ban is just a ruse so some members of Congress could spend more and more money: Well, maybe this is true and maybe it isn’t. It is, however, entirely beside the point. Whether some supporters of an earmark ban use it as cover or not doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile idea. And I certainly don’t recall Senator Jim Inhofe proposing any bold cuts in the federal budget over the last few years. This whole point strikes me as a little too defensive, if you catch my meaning. He doesn’t name anyone, though I’ll note that the most ardent voices in support of an earmark ban have sponsored no earmarks at all in the past few  years. I’m not sure who Inhofe is talking about here, but, as I said, his point is irrelevant. No one has stopped him from introducing a real plan to cut our debt. Indeed, nothing, not even a potential earmark ban, is stopping him from doing it now.

The truth of the situation is that Republicans will never have the confidence of the public when it comes to fiscal responsibility, if they can’t agree to put earmarks aside. As I have said, here and elsewhere, if we can’t trust our members of Congress to be responsible and transparent in the little things, we’d be fools to trust them with the big things. Senator Inhofe wants our trust but he’s not willing to put down his re-election binky in order to get it. So long as that’s true, I can’t consider him an honest player in the budget game.

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