One of the things that is striking about being in Congress is how hard people at home work to earn a living, and how casually their tax money is spent in Washington. One of the few bright spots on that front in recent years has been the earmark ban. Earmarks are spending projects that are requested by individual members of Congress, which have included things like the infamous Teapot Museum and the Bridge to Nowhere.
The ban has been in place since 2011, but pro-earmarking members from both parties have been working furiously to repeal it. They nearly did so at the beginning of 2017, and are demanding a vote on the issue in the upcoming months. Bringing back pork-barrel politics is a terrible idea for a number of reasons, and I’m fighting hard to keep it from happening.
First, earmarks are wasteful. The Bridge to Nowhere, between two tiny towns in Alaska, was to cost $320 million, be higher than the Brooklyn Bridge, and nearly as long as the Golden Gate Bridge. Does anyone really think that was the best use of scarce federal highway money? What about the Charles C. Rangel Center for Public Service, a $2 million monument to a politician built by the politician himself using federal tax dollars? Some claim this is a small amount of money. In the grand scheme of federal spending, perhaps it is, but the notion that Congress can just waste small amounts of money is how I suspect the federal government got into the habit of wasting large amounts of money.
The government is inevitably going to waste some money just due to its sheer size, but every step possible should be taken to limit wasteful spending. All federal tax money should be treated as a sacred trust, not as a slush fund. It is crazy how comfortable politicians are about willingly wasting taxpayer money – which we will be doing if earmarks are brought back. If we know it’s wasteful, then we shouldn’t do it, period, whether it’s $100 or $100 million.
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Earmarks are also used as incentives to get members of Congress to ignore their principles. For instance, when I testified in a hearing against the notion of bringing back earmarks, one of the members mentioned that, while he was chairman of the Transportation Committee, he had never had a hostile amendment vote in his committee. What this means is that no member had ever offered an amendment that the chairman disagreed with. Not one in six years. That’s because members had such a large interest in not upsetting the applecart because if they did so they’d lose their earmarks. A legislature that has no dissent is a bought and paid for legislature, pure and simple.
Finally, while not all earmarks are corrupt, they have been associated with a spectacular degree of corruption. No other category of legislative action has the same connection between reward and request as earmarks do. Individual members of Congress ask for them. Individual companies or political interests directly gain profit from the spending. That creates an enormous incentive for trading influence at best, and bribery at worst. Reinstating that system is the exact opposite of what voters elected me to do in 2016.
Budd, a Republican, represents North Carolina’s 13th District in the U.S. House.