Skyrocketing federal spending, fueled by extravagant budget earmarks, met a stone wall in December’s lame duck session of Congress. Lame duck senators, with terms expiring Jan. 1, had anonymously included their gifts to friends and constituents in an omnibus-spending bill of 1,924 pages to enrich their own interests.
The $1.2 trillion omnibus spending bill’s purpose was to keep government funded for the remainder of this fiscal year. Experienced “earmarker” senators could not resist the opportunity to insert 6,700 gifts at a cost of an extra $8 billion, and send the bill to taxpayers.
“Earmarks,” also known as pork barrel spending, are spending commitments that neither the White House or government agencies asked for, and that were not approved by any committee. They were not subject to normal review, challenge and prioritization. In many cases, the earmarks had already been specifically rejected by federal agencies or congressional committees.
There have always been pork projects. However, their costs have risen to billions of dollars, threatening our democratic republic’s very existence. In recent years, members of both major political parties have participated in this exercise of taxpayer abuse. Senators saw their excessive projects exposed on nightly news and beat a hasty retreat, calling press conferences to disavow their own earmarks and declare that they would vote against all earmarks.
These senators apparently did not get the clear message of voters in November’s election. Voters soundly expressed their rejection of policies and office holders who are responsible for the staggering U.S. debt ($14 trillion) resulting from out-of-control federal spending. Wasting precious taxpayer funds is immoral.
Pork barrel spending has become synonymous with wasteful spending, with no consideration of the critical consequences of this unrestrained spending. To the credit of the U.S. House of Representatives, its spending proposal froze spending at 2010 levels, contained no earmarks and consisted of only 423 pages. The House is on the right track.
Incredibly, the White House indicated it would accept the bloated Senate omnibus bill with the runaway pork spending. However, after the light of day spread across the mischief in the Senate bill, saner heads prevailed. Senators got cold feet about defying the voters’ wishes and the bill was not called forth.
State and local governments have their own opportunities for using the budget process to favor certain constituencies, but the dollar amounts are normally not as dazzling as those at the federal level. Some state constitutions – like Kentucky’s – prohibit deficit spending, better protecting taxpayers and the integrity of public funds. Admittedly, the Kentucky Education Reform bill of the 1990s contained funding for more than a few golf courses and other special projects unrelated to education reform. Historically, public officials have routinely used popular reform bills to tuck in their pet projects.
The new makeup of the U.S. House signals a different approach to the malignant spending process in Washington. Not only are there changes in the House, but in state governorships and legislatures as well. To a lesser extent, there is change in the U.S Senate, with numerous incumbents being turned out. Voters are observing their government more closely. They expect more responsible spending, reduced debt and a process that conducts the people’s business out in the open, not behind closed doors.
The 6,700 earmarked projects in the Senate’s bill were not for “shovel ready” projects or major capital infrastructure improvements. They were projects such as beach promenades, illuminated jogging paths, landscaping, bicycle and hiking trails – all nice to have, but not national priorities for beleaguered taxpayers.
How could any senator have missed the message of the recent election? And why are senators who were rejected at the polls in November allowed to formulate crucial budgetary policies in December?