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June 20, 2007

Earmarks: A Bridge to Bankruptcy

Kevin E. Dayhoff

After months of bitter fighting, the surge on "earmarks," our own homegrown version of economic terrorism, continues to meet stiff resistance.

The Great Porkbusters War has now raged in a "Twilight Zone" for over 18 months with no resolution in sight. The initial "Porkbusters" grassroots effort was launched in September 2005 by conservative political commentator Glenn Reynolds as an effort "to cut 'pork barrel' spending by the U.S. Congress."

Sen. Tom Coburn (R.,OK,) whom political commentator Mark Tapscott has credited with spearheading the war on earmarks, quickly saw an opportunity to strike a major blow against earmarks and proposed the "Coburn Amendment" to a broad, sweeping appropriations bill, which had been introduced in June of that year.

The Coburn Amendment attempted to remove money from the bill. It specifically addressed the $220 million so-called "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska and the reconstruction of the "Twin Spans Bridge" in Louisiana. The amendment was defeated 82-15, but it put Congress on notice that a grassroots war on secret, discretionary congressional spending on pet projects had begun.

By now the Democrats had discovered the issue as politically expedient and in March 2006, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., CA) held a press conference in which she railed against earmarks.

It was political theatre at its best. "Anything that is in any bill, any provision, whether it's an earmark or not. There should be transparency, so that ... before members vote on the bill, there should be an appropriate time for people to be able to read it, that it be a matter of public record."

Sen. Harry Reid (D., NV) quickly echoed those remarks and the war on the profligate spending by the Republican controlled Congress continued in earnest as a political campaign bridge to success.

After last fall's elections - in which the Democrats successfully swept into control of both Houses of Congress, then Speaker-elect Pelosi boasted last December: "We will bring transparency and openness to the budget process and to the use of earmarks . and we will give the American people the leadership they deserve."

Yet, less than a week had passed after Senator Reid ascended to the office of Senate Majority Leader in January that he started leading the Democrats as they backpedaled.

Although the matter of the Democrats' backpedaling on earmarks is still relatively under-reported in the mainstream media that is loath to criticize liberals, all is not lost. As the waste of cold cash continues to cause heartburn for an increasingly informed taxpayer base, voters have learned that Congress needs to actually feel the heat from the dollar bills used to light their cigars.

To put an exclamation mark on this point, Noam Levey wrote in the Los Angeles Times just last week that voters are disappointed "at the pace of change since Democrats assumed the majority on Capitol Hill," and that, as a result, "public approval of Congress has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade."

Only 27% of Americans now approve of the way Congress is doing its job, down from 36% in January, according to Mr. Levey. Another poll taken last week reduced the approval for Congress to just 23 %, and for Senator Reid himself to 19%.

And House Speaker Pelosi, who is always so anxious to call attention to the president's approval rating, has only a 36% approval rating.

And yet, in total defiance of overwhelming public pressure, the Democratic leadership persists.

In a column on Monday, Donald Lambro cited budget watchdog Brian Riedl at the Heritage Foundation in Washington as grumbling, "House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (of Wisconsin) has reversed earlier transparency pledges by vowing to keep all House pork projects secret until the appropriations bills have passed the House."

Representative Obey "claims to have received 32,000 earmark requests, an average of 74 from each of the 435 House members," said Mr. Riedl.

By the end of last week, there appeared to be no progress in spite of dueling press conferences by both parties proclaiming various esoteric victories that had even veteran congressional reporters shaking their heads in mass confusion and reaching for big containers of aspirin.

Why should you really care? Fair question. Above and beyond the fact that earmarks are essentially fiduciary malfeasance promulgated in secret; they are bankrupting the country.

As the world continues to be an ever increasingly dangerous place, the one thing that has remained a constant strength, in spite of extraordinarily turbulent times, is the American economy.

How much money is involved? CNN reports that in 2006, (the Republican controlled) "Congress approved a record $29 billion in earmarks."

Yes, that was billions - with a "B."

This included spending money on everything "from road construction and research grants to ski lifts and minor league baseball diamonds. (And) the 2006 total was 6.2 percent more than 2005's $27.3 billion."

Just yesterday CNN reported: "Despite the new Democratic congressional leadership's promise of 'openness and transparency' in the budget process, a CNN survey of the House found it nearly impossible to get information on lawmakers' pet projects. Staffers for only 31 of the 435 members of the House contacted by CNN between Wednesday and Friday of last week supplied a list of their earmark requests for Fiscal Year 2008."

Of the Maryland congressmen contacted, not one of the eight representatives responded. Not one.

To be certain, not all earmarks are unworthy. But, as best said in a recent editorial by Carroll County Times Editor Jim Lee: "Funding for every pet project proposed by any member of the U.S. House or Senate should be contingent on an open process which identifies the sponsor, the benefactors, a cost-benefit analysis and what the spending ultimately means to taxpayers.

And therein lies the rub. Unfortunately, if unchecked by reforms promised by the Democratic leadership, this unimpeded and irresponsible spending will ultimately mean an economy in crisis, much higher taxes, job losses and a compromised national defense.

A bridge here and bridge there and pretty soon it all adds up to a bridge to national bankruptcy.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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