An end to earmarks?

The most interesting, and truly unintended, consequence from all the Democrat calls to “reform” lobbying rules in Congress were the news outlets calling for an end to congressional “earmarks.”

“Earmarks” are appropriations — federal money — designated to specific, local projects in the districts of members of Congress. For one “earmark” a member of congress can get at least three positive news hits — one announcing the proposal, one announcing its passage, and one announcing the “member’s hard work, which led to the President’s signature.” The number of earmarks has risen from 4126 in 1994 to 14,040 in 2004.

Coverage on yesterday’s evening news programs on ABC, NBC and CBS, as well as editorials in the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal (the three biggest networks and three biggest newspapers in America) all either called for an elimination of earmarks, or derided the Democrats for not calling for earmarks.

Proposals like eliminating privileges of ex-members, or lowering the gift limit will not work because they only address symptoms of a much larger problem: Where there is power, folks will gravitate there to take advantage of it.

Journalists and those who study congressional ethics know that eradicating earmarks would eliminate a lot of the ethics problems we see at the US Capitol and state capitols across the country. This is because lobbyists, and ensuing corruption, gravitate toward power. And one very large power source is the ability of elected officials to determine where billions of dollars will be spent.

A lot of headway has been made about how the number of lobbyists has increased along with the number of earmarks in the last 10 years. But spending is only one side of the growing number of lobbyists.

Another source of power that draws lobbyists is the tax code. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey released a report back in 1996 detailing how the rising number of lobbyists back then was directly correlated to the increasing number of words in the tax code.

Power to change the tax code draws lobbyists. Power to designate local spending draws lobbyists. What else draws lobbyists?

What do energy and commerce lobbyists focus on? They focus on changing regulations — either scaling them back, or increasing them to drown out competition.

Where there is power, folks will gravitate there to abuse it. If reformers really wanted to end the influence of lobbyists, they’d call for a simple flat tax (which would devastate the tax lobbying industry) and an end to earmarks (which would scale back the spending lobbying industry). Then, they’d propose a moratorium on all new regulations, and a commission to identify overly burdensome regulations, which Congress could then vote to eliminate on an up-or-down vote. That would poke the regulations lobbying industry.

The exciting thing is that there appears to be a growing coalition to do just that. Conservatives in the U.S. House like Rep. Mike Pence, tax relief activists like Grover Norquist, the establishment media, clean government types like Common Cause, and lefties like Ralph Nader could all conceivably come together to put an end to the earmarking process. It could be done.

I don’t mean to imply here that lobbyists are evil. Most lobbyists are extremely useful, and bring otherwise unseen and unforeseen viewpoints and information to the legislative process.

But one thing is for sure: Eliminating the $50 dinner that a Congressman has with a friendly lobbyist won’t do a thing to curb corruption. Going after the sources of power that draw the lobbyists to Congress — the tax code, appropriations, and regulations — will do exactly that.