How much would you pay for “alternative salmon products?” I don’t even know what “alternative salmon products” are. Seems to me we already have alternatives – chicken, steak, pork – you get the idea.
But in 2006, Congress was willing to shell out about $1 million for “alternative salmon products.” That’s in addition to taxpayer funds for a glass museum, a nutrient management lab, a state’s low impact welcome center, and improved rodent control, among a long list of questionable projects.
These silly and wasteful government undertakings were the result of what are known as earmarks and are part of a process that, for years, permitted members of Congress to direct taxpayer funds to their home regions for dubious projects without any hearings or meaningful scrutiny.
For years, earmarks played a significant role in fueling the overspending in Washington, currying favor with lobbyists and special interest groups, and undermining the integrity of our legislative process. And spending is truly out of control. In 2008, the government managed to get by on just under $3 trillion.
In the past few years – 2009-12 – our annual spending was more than $500 billion greater than the 2008 level.
Publicly held debt has doubled in the past four years. And our total debt is now more than $16 trillion. These spending levels make earmarks even more egregious.
Earmarks were a broadly abused practice, but even worse than the earmarks was the perverse system they created. Each ridiculous line item greased the skids for another bloated piece of legislation that might not have passed on its own merits without such wasteful handouts.
The situation got worse year after year. In 1987, President Reagan vetoed a transportation bill because it contained too many earmarks – 151. Fast forward to 2005. The transportation bill contained 6,371 earmarks.
Even just a few years ago, the idea that Congress would go cold turkey and stop earmarks was inconceivable. You can imagine that a number of members of Congress were reluctant to end the wasteful earmarking process that forced taxpayers to fund pet projects such as the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.”
But then, two years ago, I suggested at a meeting of fellow Republicans that we eliminate earmarks and curtail processes that circumvented any real inspection, transparency or rigorous evaluation. My colleagues agreed, and so did most Americans.
They made their voices heard, and then the Democrats were forced to join the Republicans in opposing earmarks. For the past two years, Congress instituted a moratorium on this wasteful spending.
A temporary ban was the first step and we can’t risk backsliding. The next step is to clearly eliminate all earmarks – forever.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and I are edging closer to a place that once seemed impossible – permanently banning earmarks from the legislative process.
McCaskill and I have introduced a piece of legislation called the bipartisan Earmark Elimination Act, which would forbid earmarks.
Our bill is supported by Citizens Against Government Waste, the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, FreedomWorks and Ending Spending, and – most importantly – the many families across Pennsylvania that have reached out to me on this issue.
My colleagues in Congress cannot credibly talk about cleaning up Washington if we do not get rid of earmarking for good. We cannot afford to allow Congress to resume this practice and play pork-barrel politics with taxpayer dollars.
We must change the culture of Congress. It will be difficult. But an idea that four years ago would have gotten you laughed out of the room – Congress ridding itself of earmarks – has started to take hold. People in Pennsylvania – and the rest of the country, for that matter – do not want us to see how much money we can spend through wasteful handouts. They want to see how much we can save and spend wisely.
Banning earmarks altogether is a major step forward to restore some confidence in our government.
Pat Toomey is a Republican U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.