earmark reform

Mr. Boehner, Please Move Beyond Earmarks

This from the House Speaker-designate for the 112th Congress in today's Wall Street Journal:

[T]here are several steps I believe the next speaker should be prepared to take immediately. Among them:

No earmarks. Earmarks have become a symbol of a broken Washington, and an entire lobbying industry has been created around them. The speaker of the House shouldn't use the power of the office to raid the federal Treasury for pork-barrel projects. To the contrary, the speaker should be an advocate for ending the current earmark process, and should adhere to a personal no-earmarks policy that stands as an example for all members of Congress to follow.

I have maintained a no-earmarks policy throughout my time of service in Congress. I believe the House must adopt a moratorium on all earmarks as a signal of our commitment to ending business as usual in the spending process.

And this from the President during his post-election news conference on Wednesday:

My understanding is Eric Cantor today said that he wanted to see a moratorium on earmarks continuing.  That’s something I think we can -- we can work on together.

In light of the economy, I can understand why Boehner is focusing on earmarks as the most visible symbol of what needs to be fixed on Capitol Hill. And I agree that we need to fix the abuse of the earmark process by reforming it. But the fact is that not all earmarks can be construed as wasteful spending and not all wasteful spending are in earmarks. It's easy to come up with rhetoric denouncing "the evils of earmarks," but what we should be focusing on substantively is wasteful spending.

I don't want to get into debates over how Republicans should define public goods and wasteful spending. I do however want to talk about what principles should be espoused by Republicans when it comes to spending and how we can be innovative on sound spending policies.

What are some budgetary principles that should be communicated by Republicans to the American people?

  • The Solution Principle: Every challenge facing the American people does not require a federal office and federal funding.
  • The Priorities Principle: Every family and every business has to balance their checkbooks, their revenues with their expenses. Through good times and bad times, families and businesses have to sacrifice what they might want and prioritize their spending. The government should operate like any prudent family or business does, and prioritize.
  • The Investment Principle: The American people are "forced to invest" their income into government. Each taxpayer is, therefore, a shareholder in government. Because taxpayers have invested their money into government, taxpayers deserve the best return on their money. This means the "portfolio of investments" (otherwise known as government projects and agencies) must be reviewed carefully and objectively in order for the government to fulfill their due diligence.

How can we turn those principles into solutions? The answer is to do what's difficult, not easy (i.e. earmark moratoriums), and be innovative about our budget from both procedural and substantive points of view:

  • Follow the lead of Paul Ryan and his "Roadmap for America's Future" when it comes to restructuring our entitlements.
  • Don't allow earmarks to be placed during conference committees between the House and Senate.
  • Install a biennial budgeting process, something promoted by Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), while also requiring supermajorities to increase in a fiscal year after a budget has been passed (for legitimate emergencies).
  • Separate capital budgets from operating budgets for each department. Long term projects are very different from short term day-to-day costs.
  • Instead of an executive Chief Performance Officer that gets to pick and choose what works and what doesn't under subjective criteria, have Congress create a Congressional Agency Performance Office that has some independence (like CBO) to constantly scrutinize the operations of all government agencies.
  • On capital projects that go to specific state and local governments, quasi-agencies, and companies, start a Congressional Office for Spending Oversight. Just like every business has control officers, this independent office should scrutinize long term projects' spending practices. This can allow Congress to reward under-budgeted projects and punish over-budgeted projects.
  • Not only should spending be posted online before it's passed. It should also be posted online when it's spent. Just like many state governments have done, the federal government's checkbook should be posted online.

I'm glad that we're getting out in front of the President and Democrats on this. We need to be in a proactive position, not a reactive position. Talking about earmkars is too easy. This is just another area where we need to develop political communication and public policy entrepreneurship on a serious issue.

Dear GOP: Innovate!

Dear Republican Party,

 

So you lost. And it must have been especially painful, being the party of free markets and creative destruction that you are, that the forces behind your failure was your reluctance to innovate.

Conservative success up until this point has been on the basis of innovation. In the 70s great conservative thinkers put forth their sound rebukes of Nixon-style corruption and Carter-style stagflation under the pretense limited government. By the time Communism was collapsing and the failure of central planning was most obvious, your view of American Exceptionalism seemed self-evident.

But when George Bush came into power he ignored the new context of the 21st century. Instead of innovating where change was necessarily, like with Finance, Health Care or Education Reform, ill-conceived tax cuts and an all out war on terror were the path chosen. This was fundamentally a problem of nostalgia. The enemy was not as clear cut as Communism was. And globalization made American Exceptionalism unsustainable in its current form.

Then came the 2006 elections. The Democrats innovated with an anti-war message. They won. In 2008 the Democrats innovated with the promise of universal health care, ending the war, confronting climate change, and fighting corporate excess. They won.

All the while your Republican message floundered. It argued to stay the course, that the economy was fundamentally strong, that the environment didn't much matter, and that social conservatism could survive in the 21st century.

It is no surprise that as the world secularizes social conservatism seems more and more absurd. It is no surprise that limited government loses its appeal when private fraud is rampant. The Democrats won because they stayed competitive and innovated on what were all the biggest issues. The painful thing was that Republicans weren't out of ideas. On education alone you had dozens of innovative ideas like vouchers that could have revolutionized the quality of American public schools yet were never implement.

What's the lesson to be learned from this? If you want to win again, Republican Party, you're going to have to literally renew itself -- creative destruction applied to ideology. Social Conservatives will have to back off. Foreign Policy hawks will have to become more pragmatic. Science and rationality should be favored over faith and tradition. The environment must be priority. Supply Siders must align themselves with the middle class instead of Wall Street. Civil liberty must be seen as just as important as economic liberty. And a more youthful leadership must resist special interest and tackle corporate welfare.

And a note on wasteful spending: Earmark reform is going to be necessary, but it a go-no-where argument when A. Obama is for it too, B. Earmarks account for so little of what is spent, and C. you're just as guilty in its abuse. No one is going to take your anti-spending message seriously after Bush.

These changes are going to happen eventually but if you try first to revert back to the supposed ideal of Reagan Conservatism your party will only continue to sink. I'm not asking you to move towards the center, just into the new century. It's time to find something new.

 

Sincerely,

Samuel Hammond

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