By DAN K. THOMASSON
Congress has no more important function than controlling the nation’s purse strings. That is, of course, when it chooses to fulfill that duty — which recently has been more than a bit haphazard.
Last year it failed to pass nine of the 11 annual money measures relying instead on a string of temporary resolutions to fund the government.
There is only one problem with this, folks. These measures had become incubators for much of the corruption that has marred the Washington political scene the last few years. The resolutions were loaded with so-called “earmarks” — anonymously sponsored — that have costs taxpayers billions and billions of dollars for pet projects like the infamous bridge to nowhere in Alaska. This distortion of the budgetary process has reached such embarrassing levels that the Democrats, who now control Congress, have pledged to reform it.
How bad is it? During the last 10 years earmarks have increased from 4,126 in 1994 to a spectacular 12,652 last year, setting the stage for any number of abuses still not uncovered and several that have been. One of these resulted in the bribery conviction and jailing of one House member, California Republican Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who was earmarking funds for defense contractors in return for extensive favors.
As part of their campaign pledge to clean up the system, the Democrats have placed a strict moratorium on earmarks, including banning them from a new resolution to fund the government until the end of the fiscal year. The howls of protest can be heard nearly all the way to the White House.
Opponents of an all-encompassing prohibition contend that many earmarks are legitimate and should be treated that way. They argue many earmarks do involve essential spending, including some that have been vetted by the appropriations committees and even approved by the House. But at least one outside critic, Citizens Against Government Waste, has identified more than 9,000 questionable earmarks that cost taxpayers $29 billion in 2006 alone. Aside from the issue of permitting unidentified lawmakers to slip these expenditures onto bills and resolutions, the entire mess is just another example of an institution that has increasingly failed to do its job.
Nothing Congress does is more important than approaching the spending process in an orderly fashion. Yet while the House last year managed to adopt most of the spending measures, the Senate, with half its members eying the 2008 presidential election, couldn’t be bothered. There were more momentous problems to be dealt with it seems, including filibustering judicial appointments, arguing over the war and any variety of other activities that were far more interesting than the dull business of carefully appropriating money. There isn’t much political mileage in that, especially when one wants to convince his fellow Americans that he or she can do better in the White House than the current occupant. Budgets and deficits have never been really viable campaign issues.
Besides, nothing sells the home voters on one’s importance to their welfare more than providing them with a huge hunk of fatty pork. So every desire, no matter how wasteful, can be satisfied without the need for all the arcane fiddle-faddle that attends the regular budgetary process. Who understands it anyway?
One can only hope that the Democrats can manage to bring some order out of this chaos; that they can take us back to the days when all the regular appropriations measures were adopted by both houses and supplemental bills were necessary only on a short term basis. But given the track record of both parties, placing much faith in the current rhetoric would be a mistake. Still, the Democrats’ moratorium on earmarks is encouraging, but only if it signals a return to some congressional responsibility in setting, approving and appropriating funds in a regular timely fashion.
In the long forgotten days, Congress was not a fulltime institution. It would meet, approve its appropriations bills and a treaty or two, clear presidential appointments and then adjourn for the year. Granted, the nation’s needs have since grown in complexity to a point they require constant oversight. But Congress has fallen woefully short of performing what the framers of the Constitution foresaw as its basic legislative functions. Sticking its collective nose into every nook and cranny of American lives at the expense of solid, orderly procedure wasn’t one of those.
Nothing is more indicative of this than its recent failures to meet its appropriations responsibilities.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)