Monday, January 26, 2009

The Real Problem

Congressional earmarking has earned a horrible reputation. Earmarks have been decried by both parties as inherently evil. And yet neither party has been able to refrain from heavily employing earmarks.

The Office of Budget and Management (OMB) provides this definition for the term earmark:
“OMB defines earmarks as funds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents Executive Branch merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to manage critical aspects of the funds allocation process.”
Congress used to create policies, establish a budget for carrying out those policies, and then task the executive branch with executing the policies with the budget supplied. Earmarks make an end run around the priority setting process and the competitive bidding process. They amount to micromanagement of the executive branch.

People have come to loathe earmarks, but perhaps for reasons that most don’t quite grasp. This AP article explains why earmarks may not be as bad as the alternative. The author describes how the new transparency and anti-earmark policies of the Obama administration are driving the earmarking process underground. It’s still happening, but it’s actually less transparent than the bad old way.

Why is it that everyone hates earmarks anyway? After all, earmarks actually amount to a paltry portion of the federal budget. And many federal legislators, such as Utah’s Senator Bob Bennett, are “proud” of their efforts to bring federal pork to their home states via earmarks.

It is not the relative size of the earmarks that upsets Americans. It is what earmarks represent. Earmarks are a symptom of a much larger problem. What is that problem?

Tad DeHaven, commenting on the AP article I referenced writes, “The real problem is that few, if any, limitations remain on what our federal masters can spend our money on.” DeHaven makes a good point. But I think that his analysis actually falls short of the “real problem.”

Lobbyists and politicians that game the system exist only in proportion to the amount of resources controlled by the government. The more resources the government controls, the more people there will be lining up to get a share of the government pie. This is really basic. If you want less earmarking and lobbying, you must reduce the scope of government. Period.

Trying to ban political influence trading is like trying to ban flies from a sewage pond on a warm day. So, in a sense, Senator Bennett was right to stand against an earmark ban, because it would amount to nothing more than symbolism and would actually reduce government transparency. But in a more important way, Senator Bennett is wrong to express pride in this system.

I still haven’t gotten to the root of the problem I alluded to above. The government didn’t gain such massive powers over the nation’s resources in one fell swoop. And contrary to what many suggest, this grab was not executed on an unwilling and unaware citizenry. Rather, it is American citizens themselves that are to blame for the current state of affairs.

Yes, my fellow Americans, WE are “the real problem.” How? Why?

WE demand more and more from government. WE demand that government take more control of our economy and provide more services. Every time I turn around, someone is demanding that the government “do something” about this or that. And yet WE demand that taxes not be raised to cover the expanding federal budget.

Americans are a bunch of spoiled children. Like bratty children enjoying the fruits of their parents’ earning with no care about the family budget, we are completely separated from the cost of the government we consume. Is it any wonder that we have an increasingly paternalistic government?

When there is no connection between what you pay and what you get, you have no incentive to limit what you consume. In fact, you have an incentive to consume unnecessarily.

But we Americans, in general, don’t seem to care. We’d rather take the Alfred E. Newman approach. “What, me worry?”


Alienated Wannabe said...


I know I am the problem.

For example, I was in favor of the Legislature and the Governor stepping in to help fund the RSL Stadium project, because I felt that the circumstances warranted the action. I still feel that way, but I know that this kind of behavior only contributes to the slippery slope of government getting involved in too many areas of our lives.

I suppose that it takes discipline to draw a hard line on government activity, but I am not sure that a hard line is always going to be in our interest. So, I favor some flexibility. But, that flexibility opens itself up for abuse. Thus, the catch twenty two.

I don't know where the answer lies. But, we do have a problem, and the current calls for the Federal Government to "nationalize" the banking industry demonstrates just how far we have approached socialism as a country.

All of life, I have felt so blessed and grateful to be an American, but I am worried for the country that I will pass on to my children. What can we do about it?


Reach Upward said...

I am proud to be an American. Even with the problems we face, there is no better place on the face of the earth today.

But our way of life requires self discipline, plus a belief in and an adherence to the principles outlined in our founding documents.

Some of that means respect for private property, which merely reflects the eighth commandment. The broad interpretation of the "common good" clause of the Constitution amounts to justification for violating this basic rule. In essence, we justify stealing others' property by voting (or supporting the granting of) benefits that exceed those expressly defined in the contract.

Government definitely has an appropriate role to play in society. But when we justify it in exceeding its specified mandate, even for a 'good cause,' we open the door for much broader abuse. If basic principles cannot define the line that must not be crossed, then the line does not, in fact, exist at all.

All Americans should be well versed in the Constitution's enumeration of governmental powers. But then it will only matter if they actually buy into these ideals.

As Justice Clarence Thomas recently pointed out, most Americans he meets are deeply interested in their 'Constitutional rights.' But only a small number of those people have any actual grasp of what those rights mean. So perhaps it can be understood that so many ignorant Americans effectively support limitless government.

Even if Americans were educated on their actual Constitutional rights, however, I wonder how many would actually accept the limits and accountabilities required to support them.