There can be little doubt that one of the greatest political and economic problems in the US is the way that our Congress “earmarks” billions of dollars for special projects that benefit lawmakers in their bid for personal security and re-election.
The system works in a very straightforward way. Congress can pass massive spending bills and all the while representatives can add “earmarks” that benefit projects and people in their district or state. It is a form, quite often, of legal payback for favors rendered to the elected official. President Bush asked Congress, in his last State of the Union address, to give him a line-item veto. Don’t expect it to happen soon. The idea makes perfect sense really, and it has been done in several states, so why am I so pessimistic about the prospects? The simple answer is plain to see—both parties have found that it pays to spend money in this less accountable way. Incumbents use it to gain favor and to stay in power. Everyone knows that over 95% of the incumbents in the US House are re-elected every two years. Why fix a system that benefits those who are being asked to fix it? Supposedly smaller-government Republicans should favor this idea but many are just as adept at this “earmark” business as the most liberal Democrats.
All the recent talk we’ve heard about reforming the system is really not very impressive when you look at what really happens in Washington. But there have always been a few leaders who have risen above this type of spending and shown themselves to be consistent in their service of the common good of all the people. Michael Reagan recently told the story of how a wealthy businessman in California came to see his late father one day when he was running his first campaign for governor in the 1960s. The man left a paper bag with $40,000 on Reagan’s desk saying, “This is for you.” Reagan took the bag and threw it at his friend and walked out of the room. Later Reagan told this man that if he wanted to make a contribution to his campaign he should send the gift to his campaign committee. And he warned his friend to never try this stunt again, telling him that if he were elected governor the man should never expect to get a single favor from Reagan.
One could wish for more people like Ronald Reagan in public leadership. I think we call this integrity. The lack of such integrity is frankly harming all of us. Everyone knows that this growing practice of budget “earmarks” is called “pork.” Frankly, calling it pork is a disgrace to pigs, who have higher standards that many of those who spend public money to secure their spot in Congress. In a very real sense I call it “legalized bribery.” I pray for the day when the public has had enough of this and pressures Congress to clean up this mess. Changing parties in the last election cycle will not likely change the culture in Washington. We need something much bigger and stronger to do that. I would suggest that what we really need is leadership with courage and vision.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."