By Stephen Slivinski
The new Congress has agreed to take action on earmarks, the budget items better known as "pork projects." Think, for instance, of the $13.5 million that helped subsidize 2005's World Toilet Summit in Northern Ireland, an expenditure worthy of jests about fiscal incontinence. In a mostly party-line 280-152 vote last week, the House passed changes to rules requiring that both the spending projects and their sponsors be disclosed on the Internet at least 48 hours before they are considered on the floor. Members of Congress will also be required to justify the public need for the expenditures and to certify that they won't benefit financially from them.
Nobody can really object to such a reform. It's certainly a good idea to shed some light on what the now-convicted über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff once called the "favor factory." But we should be realistic about what these reforms can achieve. Sadly, their impact is likely to be minimal.
For starters, some supporters of the change hope the number of egregious earmarks will decline because members of Congress will be too ashamed to attach their names to them. But as anyone who has driven over the Senator Robert C. Byrd Bridge knows, the problem isn't that lawmakers don't want their names affiliated with most earmarked projects. It's that so many of them do.
In the past, the sponsors behind earmarked items remained anonymous, and it was possible for congressmen all to take credit for a single project. There was no official way to verify who was telling the truth. Now there is. Think of it as intellectual-property protection for government waste. And just as intellectual-property protection for inventions presumably creates an incentive to innovate, earmark transparency might also lead to a rise in the number and cost of earmarks.
BEFORE, YOU'D OFTEN be able to figure out which member of Congress was tied to what earmark. The 2005 Highway Bill, for instance, included specific earmarks for particular cities or roadways. Some line items in the bill went so far as to identify a specific highway exit number. Any savvy reporter sitting down with a road map and a congressional district map could discover who probably delivered the earmark. Yet even that fledgling form of transparency didn't have an overall effect on the amount of pork in the bill. For instance, once the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska was exposed and soon became synonymous with wasteful road projects, representatives of the state—particularly Republican Senator Ted Stevens—never flagged in their support of it.
Even if transparency leads to fewer earmarks, there are no promises these projects won't reappear in other ways and other places. The congressional budget process is nothing if not a game of reinvention. You could call spending items Happy Funtime Projects instead and sock them away in another part of the budget, but they will remain the coin of the realm on K Street.
Of course, Congress could simply give a bucket of money to an agency with no strings attached. But then a member of the Appropriations Committee would write a letter to the department head suggesting something like: "Gee, wouldn't it be nice if Project X got some of this pot of money?"
Can you really blame a government department head who reads a letter like that—from a member of Congress who controls his budget and oversees his agency—and obliges? It would strike anyone in that position as similar to Tony Soprano saying to the corner grocery store owner: "Nice little place you got here. Damn shame if anything were to happen to it."
So we probably won't soon see an end to federal handouts, like the half-million dollars in taxpayer cash that in 2005 went to the Sparta Teapot Museum in North Carolina. Earmark transparency is merely a beginning. A good first step for sure, but hardly the endgame of fundamental budget reform. Indeed, future reforms should create an incentive to reduce the scope of government overall. In the meantime, it's important to remember that as long as a culture of spending persists in Washington—fueled by a budget process that allows Uncle Sam to be all things to all people—then no matter who is in power, earmarking in some form will always be with us.
Views expressed in Outside Shot are solely those of contributors.
Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at the Cato Institute, is author of Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government.