Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

May 7, 2009


David Sirota, In These Times - While most individual earmarks pass muster upon close scrutiny, presidents portray the earmarking process as fundamentally corrupt. Of course, if the last decade of no-bid contracts to campaign contributors, bungled bailouts and hegemonic politicization of the federal bureaucracy teaches anything, it is that executive branch spending decisions are not inherently less political or less corrupt than legislative branch decisions.

And yet, anti-earmarking rhetoric from White Houses of both parties is effective. A public already suspicious of government efficiency loves the argot of blue-ribbon meritocracy and empirical technocracy, even if it is absurd-even if it obscures presidents' ulterior motive: to accrue as much power as possible. . .

In the age of the imperial presidency, we have witnessed an assault on Congress's power of the purse. As the Iraq War and the Wall Street bailouts have shown, executives can now easily coerce the legislative branch into handing over trillion-dollar blank checks without fear of oversight. In that sense, our government is already far more authoritarian and less democratic than it was a half-century ago.

One of the few remaining constitutional holdouts is the earmarking process, which lets individual lawmakers direct the executive branch to spend taxpayer money in explicit ways. Though the sensationalistic media try to imply that local projects make up most of the federal budget, the truth is that earmarks make up less than 2 percent of all federal expenditures.

Nonetheless, that's 2 percent less unilateral power for a president. And so, out of Bush's 2002 anti-earmark jihad comes a new era in which talk of banning all earmarks dominates the presidential discourse in both parties. . .

One of President Obama's first declarations as he entered office was a promise "to ban all earmarks" in economic stimulus legislation. And upon signing the last budget bill leftover from Bush's term, he delivered a speech deriding earmarks and promising "an end to the old way of doing business.". . .

The fact is, either Congress or the White House is going to make specific decisions about how to spend federal dollars in states and congressional districts. Therefore, those ideologues who want to undermine Congress's power of the purse and ban earmarks (rather than merely reforming the process) are saying they believe those decisions are made more astutely by executive branch appointees in Washington, D.C., than by locally elected congressional representatives who spend much of their time in their districts interacting with constituents.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) made this point during a recent CNN interview. Noting that the same conservatives who decry earmarks also decry centralization of power in Washington, he asked, "Is all the wisdom in this country in the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., or the political appointees in Washington, D.C.? . . . No. I represent my district; I know where the needs are. I put money toward those needs, and I put my name next to them, and I send out press releases, and I stand for election every two years [so] I don't share [an] aversion to earmarks."

In the same vein, a Congress member's access to the federal purse via earmarking often provides communities their only way to influence a lobbyist-insulated government. . .

For all the substantive arguments against banning earmarks-for all of the concern about executive power grabs, the trampling of democracy, and the evisceration of the legislative branch-the exchange was yet another reminder that this earmark debate still rages in Washington because it is manufactured by a culturally and geographically isolated press corps that worships presidential power, views constitutional democracy as a joke, and sees the public as rubes, good for our tasty brats and cheese, but not for our input into critical spending decisions.

That over simplistic elitism-more than even power-hungry presidents or budget-cutting conservatives-is what genuinely threatens Congress's power of the purse, public access to the federal government and ultimately, American democracy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is hilarious (and tragic, too) that we continue to speak of democracy as if it exists.

When will we stop pretending and get real?

Democracy is - by definition - made impossible by our existing billions-to-one wealthpower inequity factor.

What part of "your government has been devoured by superwealth", don't people understand??

Your government cannot help you while this inequity factor exists. It is up to all citizens to help murder the idea to allow unlimited personal fortunes so we can have good government.

Only then will you have a chance to create a democracy.

Pay justice is the key to a golden age. The alternative is plutocracy, oligarchy, moneypower tyranny unto oblivion.

There are no second-best choices to doing pay justice. Look around: we are the only adults here to do this work that must be done. We must learn and teach the principles of pay justice, or market forces are going to continue ever-shifting the wealth (and hence power) from earners to nonearning elitists.

"money makes money" really means money rakes and takes money: only work creates wealth. Those with all the moneypower will continue to make advantage and take advantage everywhere and all the time until humans fall out of love with the idea of having other-earned wealth.

May 8, 2009 7:39 AM  
Anonymous Mairead said...

"The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it."

-Fr. Edward Dowling, SJ (1941)

May 8, 2009 7:46 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home