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Battling the Phantom of Tomorrow: Ending Earmarks Now Will Help Ensure Our Fiscal Stability in the Future

America is at war. War means sacrifice—any student of history knows that—and Americans have sacrificed throughout our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our soldiers and their families have sacrificed, and other costs have spread throughout the nation.  Whether it is the victims of Hurricane Katrina, or those that have come to their aid, or simply all those Americans who are paying higher gasoline prices, we see sacrifices of many kinds. And so in these difficult times, the American people are right to expect their elected leaders to sacrifice as well.  

But when one sees some of the things Congress funds in the annual appropriations bills, I’m sure many Americans wonder if the spirit of sacrifice stops on the steps of the United States (US) Capitol. During a war, when our focus should be on giving our fighting men and women the funds they need, the Congress has given in to its worst pork-barrel instincts.In December, Congress passed the Department of Defense Appropriations bill.  This measure, designed to fund our military operations at home and abroad, was loaded with such congressional “necessities” as $500,000 to teach science to grade-school students in Pennsylvania, $1 million for a Civil War Center in Virginia, $2 million for a public park in San Francisco, $500,000 for the Arctic Winter Games in Alaska, $1.5 million for an aviation museum in Seattle and $1.35 million for an aviation museum in Hawaii. 

How many meals-ready-to-eat (MREs), Flak-vests, or bullets could we buy with all this money?  How many dollars could we return to the taxpayers?  Again, these are just a small sampling of the many, many unrequested earmarks that fill appropriations bills.

The practice of earmarking funds in appropriations bills has lurched out of control.  According to data compiled by the Congressional Research Service, the total number of earmarks has grown from 4,126 in fiscal year 1994 to 12,852 in fiscal year 2006. In terms of dollars, the earmarking has gone from $26.6 billion to $64 billion over the same period.  Almost all of these earmarks are added in secret, without the knowledge or approval of the appropriate authorizing committees.  Clearly, this process is broken and needs to be fixed.

Together with my colleagues Senators Feingold, Coburn, Bayh, Sununu, Graham, Ensign, DeMint and Kyl, I recently introduced legislation entitled the Pork-Barrel Reduction Act.  This bill would establish a new procedure under the Senate Rules which would allow a point of order to be raised against specific provisions that contain unauthorized appropriations, including earmarks, as well as unauthorized policy changes in appropriations bills and conference reports. Of importance is that successful points of order would not kill a conference report, but the targeted provisions would be deemed removed from the conference report, and the measure would be sent back for concurrence by the House of Representatives. 

To ensure that Members are given enough time to review appropriations bills, our proposal also would require that conference reports be available at least 48 hours prior to floor consideration. It also prohibits the consideration of a conference report if it includes matters outside the scope of the conference.Further, our bill includes the provisions of the Obligation of Funds Transparency Act, which Senator Coburn and I introduced last July, to prohibit Federal agencies from obligating funds for appropriations earmarks included only in congressional reports, which are not amendable.

To promote transparency, our bill requires that any earmarks included in a bill be disclosed fully in the bill’s accompanying report, along with the name of the Member who requested the earmark and its essential governmental purpose. Additionally, our bill would require recipients of federal dollars to disclose any amounts that the recipient expends on registered lobbyists.This proposed rules change, if adopted, would allow any Member to raise a point of order in an effort to extract objectionable unauthorized provisions from the appropriations process. Our goal is to reform the current system by empowering all Members with a tool to rid appropriations bills of unauthorized funds, pork barrel projects and legislative policy riders and to provide greater public disclosure of the legislative process.

The process by which these earmarks are included in appropriations bills is disturbing to say the least, and recent scandals involving lobbyists and Members of Congress have highlighted the need to curb earmarks. In Washington, it is understood that if you want an earmark in an appropriations bill, you need to hire a lobbyist.  Each year, a “feeding frenzy” occurs among lobbyists seeking to secure an earmark from the ever-decreasing pot of discretionary funds.  Sadly, some of these lobbyists are willing to employ unethical, and often illegal, tactics to secure those funds.

As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, I recently oversaw an investigation that unearthed a story of excess and abuse by former lobbyists of a few Indian tribes. The story is alarming in its depth and breadth of potential wrongdoing. It has spanned across the United States, sweeping up tribes throughout Indian Country. It has taken us from tribal reservations across America to luxury sports boxes here in town, from a sham international think tank in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware to a sniper workshop in Israel, and beyond.  It involves tens of millions of dollars that we know about, and likely more that we do not.

How these lobbyists sought to influence policy and opinion makers is a case study in the ways lobbyists seek to curry favor with legislators and their aides. For example, they sought to ingratiate themselves with public servants with tickets to plush skyboxes at the Verizon Center, FedEx Field and Camden Yards for sports and entertainment events.  They arranged extravagant getaways to tropical islands, the famed golfing links of St. Andrews and elsewhere. They regularly treated people to meals and drinks. Fundraisers and contributions abounded. Much of what the Committee learned was extraordinary. Yet, much of what we uncovered in the investigation was unfortunately the ordinary way of doing business in this town.

Many cast blame only on the lobbying industry. But, we should not forget that Members of Congress owe it to the American people to conduct ourselves in a way that reinforces, rather than diminishes, the public’s faith and confidence in their elected Representatives. We have an obligation to change the way things are being done in Washington. 

A system that allows Members of Congress to earmark federal funds at the urging of a highly paid, well connected lobbyist is bound to breed corruption. Something is seriously wrong when, as we saw with former Representative Cunningham, one unscrupulous lobbyist, and one unethical congressman can join forces and effectively steal hundreds of millions of dollars from the American taxpayer.

These abuses shouldn’t serve as our only reason for reform; our fiscal crisis adds additional urgency. We need to be thinking about the future of America and the future generations who are going to be paying the tab for our continued spending.  It is simply not fiscally responsible for us to continue to load up appropriations bills with wasteful and unnecessary spending and good deals for special interests and their lobbyists. We have had ample opportunities to tighten our belts in this town in recent years, and we have taken a pass each and every time. We simply must start making some very tough decisions around here if we are serious about improving our fiscal future. We can’t put off the inevitable any longer.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has issued warnings about the dangers that lie ahead if we continue to spend in this manner.  In a recent report, CBO stated that, because of rising health care costs and an aging population, “spending on entitlement programs—especially Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—will claim a sharply increasing share of the nation’s economic output over the coming decades.”  The report went on to say that, “unless taxation reaches levels that are unprecedented in the United States, current spending policies will probably be financially unsustainable over the next 50 years. An ever-growing burden of federal debt held by the public would have a corrosive…effect on the economy.”

We have to face the facts, and one fact is that we can’t continue to spend taxpayers’ dollars on wasteful, unnecessary pork barrel projects or cater to wealthy corporate special interests any longer. The American people won’t stand for it, and they shouldn’t—they deserve better treatment from the Congress. 

In his farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower reflected on spending he believed to be excessive. His words then are all the more powerful in today’s out of control environment: “As we peer into society’s future,” he said, “we—you and I, and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”

And yet, if we cannot change, if we will not change, we risk precisely that— becoming the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.  I wonder what President Eisenhower would think of our fiscal situation. But, then, perhaps others have contemplated the same question. After all, the Defense Appropriations bill we passed in December included a $1.7 million earmark for a memorial on the National Mall that would honor none other than…Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

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Chairman, United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs