Thursday, November 17, 2016

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back into the Washington, DC Swamp...

Earmarks are amendments added into legislation to either provide funds or exemptions to groups or specified projects in the state of the politician who requested the earmark. At the end of the last decade, the rules on earmarks were tightened by both political parties in the House of Representatives so that groups and projects requesting earmarks had to apply for them under tighter restrictions, and congressmen who sponsored such measures had to swear or affirm that they themselves were in no way lined up to benefit financially from the allocation or exemption involved in a given earmark. This is, of course, the conceit of the DC insider, that the appearance of non-direct benefit equals non-benefit. But benefits in Washington often accrue indirectly and at a distance in time and financial space. If you contribute to a congressman’s personal political action committee or other fund, that is deemed not to be a direct contribution even though, at some point in the future, the congressman will benefit from those funds. The Senate has not been as restrictive, so earmarks get into legislation when it gets to the Senate.

There are arguments in favor of earmarks; advocates say that the Executive Branch’s departments make such allocations anyway, though they usually require competitive bidding, whereas congressional earmarks are often given to a favored company or project without considering whether some other group or project might be a better way to spend the money. The late John Murtha (D-Pa) left a scandal in his wake (no pun intended) when it was exposed that he had sponsored earmarks for a company that contributed heavily to his reelection. The company was subsequently drawn into an inquiry into its lobbying firm by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

To put it harshly, earmarks can be essentially legal graft in the form of little measures that are plugged into each bill passed by the United States Congress for the benefit of each member’s district. Theoretically, a senate bill could have one hundred earmarks attached to it, one for each senator’s political supporters back home. The process rewards political cronies for their support and generally raises or diverts money that could have been used for a more worthy purpose—one that might benefit the entire country instead of greasing the palms of businessmen or politicians in one city in one state—or that money could have been left in the pockets of hard-pressed taxpayers. 

While some allegedly worthy projects claim to have benefited from this process (drones for example), it seems to me that the process corrupts politicians and the marketplace by bestowing federal largess on some at the expense of others. It turns government into a cynical game of staying in power by scratching the backs of the connected. It also creates the annoying situation where a bill on healthcare might contain a provision on corporate financial paperwork that has nothing whatsoever to do with healthcare, or a defense bill might have a provision for building a statue of a congressman or senator in his hometown.

As I said, the use of earmarks by the House of Representatives has been down since 2010, but, this week, Congress was considering restoring earmarks to their former glory. That is, they WERE going to do it until commentators in the media began to talk about it. The almost universal public revulsion led House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wi) to pivot in midstream and announce that the House would not be voting on this measure any time soon. We are left to imagine that they will wait until no one is paying attention and then revisit the vote to restore earmarks. 

This backsliding into corruption has led many commentators to wonder whether Congress saw the results of the recent election for the rebuke of Washington, DC, corruption that they were. It would appear not. Less well publicized is Monday’s vote in the House for HR 985, a bill entitled “The Concrete Masonry Products Research, Education and Promotion Act of 2015(!).” This bill—which was originally introduce in February of last year—would create a federal Concrete Masonry Products Board to “coordinate research, education and promotion of concrete.” In order to fund the board, manufacturers of concrete will be assessed (read taxed) something between one and five cents per unit of concrete. The trouble is that 1) there is no reason why the concrete industry could not form a private board if this were necessary; there is no need for a government board; and 2) the tax will be passed on to consumers of concrete, meaning that construction costs will go up and construction jobs will be lost or wages cut.

Basically, the large manufacturers of concrete asked for this legislation in order to tax their smaller competitors out of business. (If truth be told, that is the purpose of a lot of federal legislation as well as federal court decisions; it is what is meant by the term “crony capitalism,” which is that politicians penalize the competitors of the corporations that contribute to their campaigns and give these contributors unfair access to government grants.) As with the restoration of earmarks, this boondoggle has the fingerprints of electorally tone-deaf Republicans all over it, having been introduced by Representative Brett Guthrie (R-Ky), although it was opposed by the Republican Study Center and the Republican House Liberty Caucus. Liberty Caucus spokesman Representative Justin Amash (R-Mi) called the bill “another corporate program that benefits some businesses at the expense of others.”

Amash was among the 38 congressmen who voted against the legislation. Only one Democrat, Jared Polis (D-Co), was among the nay voters. The yea voters consisted of 188 Republicans and 167 Democrats. Another 38 congressmen did not vote on the measure. My representative was among the 188.

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