According to Merriam Webster the definition of an earmark is: a provision in Congressional legislation that allocates a specified amount of money for a specific project, program, or organization. Sounds simple and easy enough to understand from the surface one would wonder why something that simply defines what a Congressional Districts seem to need to meet their personal demands of what their plot of land needs would be an item worthy of mention in a SOTU speech and why Democrats are unhappy with their Democratic President over his statement that he will sign no legislation that includes earmarks, I mean after all, don't we all need earmarks to pay for road improvements, senior centers, and infrastructure projects that help improve the foundation of our hometowns?
Earmarks, by the way, have a much less complimentary name that you may be more familiar with: PORK BARREL spending. Now the casual political observer surely has heard these words and may or may not understand them and I will define in a moment some of the more infamous "earmark" projects that caused great controversy and mainly underscore why there is a problem with them, but before I am done with this piece I hope you will understand one simple fact. Earmarks have become blank gift certificates that need tighter control and greater public study and transparency.
Earmarks have made the news and have either become part of political scandal or amazing tax dollar waste. The Bridge to Nowhere is the best known project in the history of earmarks. At the cost of $223 million former Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens slipped this earmark in to build a bridge to an island where literally 50 people lived. Although the bridge was never built, it got more attention that politicians were comfortable with.
Former Republican Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham was convicted for taking $2.4 million in bribes over earmarked projects in his District that aided defense contractors.
In 2006, an earmark of $500,000 was set aside to build a tea pot museum. Yes, a half a million tax dollars to build a museum for tea pots which I'm sure is very popular and a destination for millions of American families every year.
The most insane road project in the history of America was Boston's Big Dig. Over the course of 20 years and $14 billion tax payer dollars to complete, this project became the black hole of pork barrel spending. To his credit, President Ronald Reagan vetoed this project only to have Congress override this veto and the controversial and fraud laden project was finally completed and basically all is did was redirect traffic.
Very recently, $3.4 million was spent to build a tunnel for traffic so that turtles that lived in an area of Florida could pass the road now without fear of death. I'm pro-turtle, but was this project really necessary?
And my favorite: Although only a paltry $15,000 was earmarked for this project at Florida Atlantic University, we now know what happens to the motor function of alcohol on mice when they are drunk. Let's see, could that $15,000 have been spent feeding the hungry? Just asking.
Listen, not all earmarks are bad, in fact the majority are not and they are the system Congress uses to dole out tax dollars for in District projects. The majority are not illegal or unethical and of course most of them are not useless, but there is still a ton of wasted tax dollars spent, and the money will be spent one way or the other, which is the point of my piece today.
President Obama stated during the SOTU that he would sign no bill that had earmarks in it. That's ludicrous. Even the ever soft spoken Harry Reid is right on this issue. It was an applause line written and delivered to appease the Republicans and no one in that room believes that earmarks will suddenly go away because they won't.
What good can come of this reform is simple if it happens and that would be a more public and transparent system of how and more importantly where the money will be spent. But the days of hiding earmarks in popular legislation that is surely to pass as a way of getting these funding measures passed has to stop. Transparency is critical as we move forward and we have a right to know where our dollars are being spent. But to believe we can eliminate earmarks is wrong and cannot happen, it's just not realistic nor is it fundamentality sound business.
We must start spending tax dollars more responsibility and the days of Federal tax dollars paying for and indoor rain forest or an aquarium in Chicago should be shelved until we are in the black in this country, which means more than likely never again in our lifetimes.
Politicians will most likely change what we currently call earmarks, but that doesn't solve the problem. A system where all worthy projects are submitted and then a competitive bidding process is utilized would be a good start. Emergency funding should be set aside for real emergencies. A fairer and more equitable method of disbursing tax payer dollars needs to be examined and installed and if most people realized how much of their own money goes to other states and not back to them would enrage them if the truth were commonly known.
We do have serious financial problems in this country. Allowing the Bush Tax cuts to expire would have been a huge shot in helping to reduce our debt. It didn't happen. We cannot continue to allow spending to keep at this pace any longer and that's clear no matter what political affiliation you have. Earmarks are an excellent place to start, but we can't stop there. Let's end our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan once and for all. Let's responsibly cut defense spending. Let's pass real legislation that forces down the cost of heath care so that Medicaid and Medicare stops being such a burden and let's stop pretending that this is all someone else's fault and someone else's problem.
Even this liberal knows that we can't continue to play the game the way we currently are. This kind of change is mandatory and it will take courage and bravado and honesty to accomplish, but maybe we are finally ready for that for the alternative is disastrous. This morning in Spain the unemployment rate is 23%. If you don't think that's possible here, think again. Some things do require political leadership and this is one of them. If we don't stop playing politics with spending and tax dollars we will be joining Spaniards soon enough. That's not a trip I want to take. Do you?