Today Representative John Culbertson (R-Texas) pulled (that is, withdrew) a bill that would have made changes to the earmark ban the House imposed earlier. An earmark is basically an addition to a bill that includes some kind of project or spending for the congressman’s home district. It is a rider. And normally, it constitutes “pork barreling” designed to get that representative re-elected. So when I first read the headline that the bill was proposed by Culbertson, I thought, well, here comes the pork again and we will be drowning in a sea of spending to an even greater extent, with no real benefit to the nation as a whole. But then I read more.
It appears that since the Congress has stopped using earmarks, and instead passed more general spending bills, it has “thrown the baby out with the bathwater.” On the one hand, congressmen were not able to favor their own district alone at everyone else’s expense. That is good. But because the spending legislation was general, it appears the Obama bureaucrats charged with actually implementing the spending were ignoring the intent of the legislation and using the money any way they wanted to favor their own “constituents.” Ah, the beauties of unintended consequences. Rightly, Congress doesn’t like this too well, so they have promised to address it by going back to the old detailed line item spending bills. These are very specific and spell out how money is to be spent by agencies. Maybe Congress will, maybe they won’t, we will see. But I have some ideas of how they could deal with this perverse result.
First, yes, use detailed line items to make it clear how funds appropriated are to be spent. But also keep the ban on earmarks. In addition maybe we could get Congress to ban the introduction by a congressman of any spending item that directly impinges on his district. That might just lead to congressmen going around to colleagues to get them to introduce the bills. And maybe they wouldn’t even do it. It is just an idea. Another idea is to get the House to commit by legislation to limit spending to no more than a fixed percentage over spending in the previous year, except in case of war (defined as declared war). OK, that is likely doomed too. But one can dream. My ideal is to somehow miraculously ratify a constitutional amendment doing the same thing. Then it would be binding on Congress. Again, yes, dreaming—until the final bill comes due sometime down the road (Greece?).
But Congress could also force agencies to spend funds as appropriated by fixing penalties for failure to do so. Penalties would include cutting the agency personnel budget (no raises, no bonuses), cutting its travel budget, cutting its budget for any sort of other perks (nicer offices, etc.). This could be automatic on a finding of the House and Senate that is accepted by a simple majority in each house (with a no filibuster provision).
I am sure there are other creative solutions that might help. But until Congress and agencies are forced to limit their own powers and actions, they will almost never limit themselves voluntarily. We cannot depend on elected, let alone unelected, officials to go against their own self-interest in the presence of so much power and money. In the long run, we need a spending limitation amendment to make Congress do what it should do. And Congress itself needs to take back its Article I power to legislate and therefore to control agencies with an iron fist. The latter may actually be the most difficult task—unless, horror of horrors, we proposed another constitutional amendment clearly spelling out that Congress cannot delegate its legislative powers and then spelling out equally clearly what that means. For both those amendments, any citizen ought to be able to sue in a court of law to enforce them. If you wanted radical, that’s radical. And I would love to hear other ideas.