MATTHEW GAGNON

Not so egregious earmarks

Posted Feb. 23, 2012, at 5:55 p.m.

I’m going to say something that might just get me excommunicated from the Republican Party. I like earmarks.

All right, that’s not entirely honest. For the most part, I loathe them. I hate spending money, especially on things that I don’t think the federal government should be spending money on. I find projects like the now famous “bridge to nowhere” to be a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars. And I especially hate the horse trading done on legislation, whereby votes are exchanged for special pork projects being attached to bills.

This is the logic Republicans have used to attack the earmarking process, and with good cause. All of those points are legitimate, and I share a certain distaste for all of it. Indeed, Wednesday night this issue came front and center as all four Republican candidates for president spent significant time talking about earmarks.

But there is something I despise a great deal more: those same taxpayer dollars being spent by the executive branch on things just as egregious, and not knowing about it.

Say what you want about the earmarking process, but it is open and very much transparent. If a member of Congress wants to fund a project, they submit a request for an earmark, it is put to a vote and we as citizens are able to make our judgment about the appropriateness of the spending.

Indeed, that very same “bridge to nowhere” was in fact responsible for electrifying the limited government crowd in many ways, providing a very real, very obvious example that could be used to fight big spending.

Yes, earmarking involves waste and corruption. But at least we can easily see it, and at least the folks in charge of spending that money are directly elected representatives of the people.

Without earmarking, a very different system takes shape — the very system that earmarking was designed to wipe out.

In it, power is transferred away from Congress, and into the executive branch. Pots of money given to the executive departments for their budgets now become the sources by which projects get funded. Unelected bureaucrats then are in a position to dole that money out, under cover of darkness and with no real transparency.

Our constitution was designed very specifically to make Congress the most important, powerful branch of government. The founders believed, with good reason, that too much authority in the hands of the executive would lead to tyranny. Congress was given the purse strings for that very reason, and the framers felt strongly that the elected representatives closest to the people should be the ones with the most power.

Ending earmarking, as most Republicans would probably like, upsets that balance. It concentrates more power in the hands of the executive branch. It takes away constitutionally vested control that should be in the hands of elected officials, and puts it in the hands of political appointees.

But more troubling, it removes a level of transparency that shows us what our government is spending its money on.

The worst of it, of course, is that even with earmarks banned, members of Congress are still trying to find ways around the system. If you think they can’t find ways to get their pork and pet projects accomplished just because earmarks are gone, you’re kidding yourself. There are plenty of ways, none of which are transparent.

Ultimately, the fight we watched on Wednesday between GOP presidential hopefuls was a fight we shouldn’t really be having anymore. I hate spending money. I would prefer no one actually earmarked anything. But I’m much more comfortable knowing what I should be outraged about, than not knowing.

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at matthew.o.gagnon@gmail.com and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.

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