Guest Column

Restore Congressional control over direct spending

May 22, 2015
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The Founding Fathers’ father, Benjamin Franklin, was a master compromiser.

It’s almost comical that so-called Tea Partiers are so rigid and naïve about the past and the present. They apparently don’t know it, but they actually made President Obama even more powerful.

On the one hand, Tea Partiers say they seek decentralization and the diminishment of this White House yet, at the same time, they advocate for the continued abolition of Congressional control over the federal purse.

I trust our West Michigan congressmen more than most White House political appointees. So did the Founding Fathers, which is why the Constitution established the Legislative Branch first and then the Executive Branch. It’s also why they gave the responsibility of funding the federal government to the House and Senate. Congressionally directed grants, or earmarks, were like people: You had good ones and bad ones.

These grants are not unlike other legislative processes — there are bills you like and bills you don’t like. Those seeking 100 percent purity of what they want in a bill don’t belong as lawmakers. Lawmaking is about obtaining your objective and acknowledging you must make compromises. 

Congressionally directed grants were branded as wasteful spending or “pet projects” to get members re-elected, to take care of members’ families or friends, etc. The anti-earmark momentum started to reach critical mass in Congress in 2008, and even Barack Obama campaigned against them in his presidential race. Eventually, all earmarks were banned for FY 2010 and continue to be banned by Congress. Tea Partiers celebrated, but the biggest winner was Obama.

There is truth to the idea that some earmarks were self-serving, but in all legislative issues, members of Congress, by and large, act to serve their constituents. If your intention is to vote on the House floor against the consensus of your constituents on policy issues, why serve?

Likewise, if a member of Congress — who has the Constitutional authority to fund the functions of the federal government — believes a federal agency does not pay proper attention to a need in their district, they have the right and responsibility to direct spending to that program.

Were some wasteful? Some probably were but most probably were not. Remember that “Bridge to Nowhere” (Palin berated it when running for vice president but conveniently neglected to mention she advocated for federal funding for it, even writing the Alaskan Congressional Delegation seeking funding) and funding for companies owned by members’ families? But rarely do radio talk show hosts announce increases in funding through earmarks for childhood cancer and Alzheimer’s research, bulletproof vests for local law enforcement departments, clean water research, flood control projects, etc.

“But they broke the budget!”

Did they?

No, another Tea Party fallacy. Earmarks were written into the appropriations bills only after the allocation cap was established for each subcommittee. No additional funding was provided for earmarks. Funding saved through earmark bans — zero.

Earmarks really had little effect on overall spending because a lot of that money had already been allocated to executive agencies (as opposed to new spending). So earmarks were basically funds that were being channeled from agency accounts where the government had already provided outlays.

In its infinite wisdom, however, Tea Party and anti-earmark zealots actually handed the Obama Administration the ability to take every federal dollar it provided the executive branch and distribute it the way it wanted. Congress has no ability whatsoever to direct a dime of the trillions it sends to the Obama White House.

“But earmarks were the gateway to corruption!”

The abusers were found and caught. Jack Abramoff went to jail. Congressman Duke Cunningham went to jail. Many lost re-election. So the system, while messy, worked, and the bad guys were ousted. Earmark reforms were successfully implemented. Yet the public pressure to eliminate the ability of every honest member of Congress to direct spending was too great, fueled by AM radio blabber and superfluous blogs written by people who are angry for the sake of staying angry (great ratings fueled by heated untruths).  

To eliminate Congressional control over direct spending is a Stalinesque form of totalitarianism. It is time to put federal spending back into the hands of the people who send their representatives to Congress.

Think all earmarks were bad? Tell it to the men, women and their families who returned home, having been safely transported in the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles — an earmark.

Franklin confessed that with age came wisdom. He changed his mind. We should hope that today’s Tea Partiers can follow the lead of such an austere Founding Father.

Grand Rapids native Steve Carey is president of Potomac Strategic Development Co. in Washington, D.C.

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