Friday, March 12, 2010


by Richard Crrews
I heard about this a couple of days ago, but I wasn't sure how big a deal it was. I thought it might be just some more Washington smoke. It certainly doesn't amount to much financially--a couple of billion bucks in a budget a thousand times that big. But you know what they say in Washington--a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon it begins to add up.

It seems our vaunted representatives in the capitol are having a "drop you pants" contest about curbing earmarks and some Washington watchers think it may just be a big deal--in fact, a VERY BIG deal--the tip of a proverbial ice berg (to mix a delightfully sadistic metaphor).

Let's start with "what are earmarks?" (This will be a short paragraph but you can skip it if the term "earmarks" is old hat for you, that is, if it already leaves a bad taste in your mouth.) An earmark is a little amendment a senator or congressperson gets attached to a bill which is passing by on its way through Congress--and it may be a bill on a totally different subject--so that a particular company in a particular voting district gets a particular government contract or grant with no competition or public fanfare. The company then makes a campaign contribution.

Earmarks are simple, straightforward, common (there are many thousands of earmarks passed by Congress every year). They are the meat and potatoes of lobbyists. And the major source of campaign funds for most legislators. Public-interest groups commonly fight against earmarks; candidates for high national office commonly rail against them when campaigning (including Obama and McCain--oh, hell, they all do). But nobody does anything (including Obama and McCain--oh, hell, nobody does). Earmarks are too quick and easy, and they are too tried and true--just part of the Washington woodwork. With the earmark system everybody wins--well, everybody except the public, that is, the taxpayer.

So ever since earmarks were invented several decades ago, nobody has seriously undertaken to get rid of them. Until now.

Because of an alignment of several weird flukes (including a couple of streaks of honesty), a "Ban the Earmark" contest has been staged in Washington. First, some key committee leadership positions shifted; then...well, to make a long story short, the Democrats in the House of Representatives swore off earmarks (sort of--they swore off them just for profit-making corporations and just for a year). The House Republicans, not to be outdone (this is ludicrously referred to as "gaining the moral high ground") thereupon swore off ALL earmarks (for a year) thereby including ones for non-profit organizations such as schools, hospitals, and churches.

The whole Washington lobby industry is in a tizzy (which is a good sign--it's the major thing that makes me think this is significant). And to think, this is just a couple of weeks after that terrible Supreme Court decision opening the floodgates of secret campaign donations by private organizations.

We'll see.