Despite all the talk about fiscal restraint and responsibility in the new Congress, the budget bill sent to President Bush's desk this week contains, by some estimates, almost $8 billion in earmarks.
Earmarks are those little pet projects that benefit some cause or group in a particular politicians home district. Think "bridge to nowhere."
A New York Times news analysis this week said this year's earmarks actually represent a reduction of about 25 percent from what could have been expected in years past, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. But with a war on, and with signs of economic slowdown evident in much of the country, even $8 billion seems like real money, in federal government terms.
As the Times analysis makes clear, plenty of lawmakers are happy not only to defend earmarks, but to boast about them. They argue that, without them, some bills would be impossible to pass. In other words, a reluctant politician can be talked into voting for more money to troops in Iraq or some other controversial bill if that bill also includes a hunk of cash for a library or pet project back home.
In this case, the budget bill includes $7.5 million for the Special Olympics in Boise, Idaho, as well as $300,000 to construct exhibits that commemorate the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois. Many of the representatives whose districts are profiting from these earmarks eagerly trumpet them at home. They are touted as examples of why voters should keep sending a particular representative back.
It may be true that with earmarks, as with many other questionable practices, people tend to get upset at everybody else's, but not their own.
But no reading of the Constitution could lead one to the conclusion that the nation's founders intended for representatives to force taxpayers nationwide to fund the pet projects of individual lawmakers. Until the early 20th century, Congress and the White House were extremely reluctant to use federal funds even for things people today would think are obviously justified, such as disaster relief.
Americans today shoulder a large tax burden compared with other generations. If Congress returned money to taxpayers, rather than earmarking it, people probably could afford to finance more worthwhile projects on their own.
But then Congress would have to hammer out its differences on issues of real substance, rather than buying each others' votes.