Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Lend me an ear to hear me out on the benefit of earmarks

At last! President Donald Trump has offered a proposal that makes perfect sense. Itís a beautiful thing.

Days ago Trump, vexed by congressional gridlock that seems to turn even an Arbor Day proclamation into a bitter partisan feud, offered a logical solution.

Trump noted: "Our system lends itself to not getting things done." You just noticed? And then the president added: "And I hear so much about earmarks ó the old earmark system ó how there was great friendliness." You better believe there was great friendliness. Itís amazing what tossing around billions of dollars can do for the spirit of comity.

"Maybe you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks," the president told a gathering of congressional leaders. Yes, they should.

Trumpís remarks about earmarks were lost in the, well, X-rated storm that came from the same meeting in which he described poor African nations and Haiti in less than Mother Teresa-like terms.

But on the earmark question Trump is spot-on.

Earmarks, otherwise sometimes unkindly known as "pork barrel spending" by sanctimonious snooty types, were once a much revered tradition in Washington that allowed members of Congress to stick all manner of goodies into pending legislation to fund a polís pet hometown project.

Itís an old axiom on Capitol Hill that one memberís earmark is merely another memberís public works project. Over their decades in Washington, our own former local late congressmen, Tampa Democrat Sam Gibbons and St. Petersburg Republican C.W. Bill Young, were masters at directing billions of dollars back to their districts without a peep of protest.

Pilfering the exchequer? Or statesmanship?

The all-time champion of earmarks was the late West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, who funneled so much federal money back home itís a mystery why they didnít rename the state West Byrdginia.

Earmarks have their own bipartisan critics, who point to many instances of suspect projects. The infamous Alaskan $223 million "bridge to nowhere" comes to mind. And there are some more modest items such as the $500,000 slipped into a bill to fund the Lawrence Welk Museum ó a one and a two and a half-million.

Florida Atlantic University was once awarded $15,000 to study how alcohol affects motor function in mice, which might explain why a tipsy mouse is so lousy at karaoke.

Congress also once appropriated $1 million to build a Woodstock Museum. Like, wow, man. And $500,000 was dedicated to studying shrimp on treadmills. They probably didnít do well, but lunch later was fabulous.

The late Wisconsin Democratic Sen. William Proxmire carved out a cottage industry for himself by awarding annual Golden Fleece Awards for absurd government spending such as the $121,000 handed over to the National Institute on Drug Abuse to study marijuanaís influence on sexual arousal. No doubt the NIDA had no trouble finding volunteers for that one.

There were scandals, too. Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the Ernst Stavro Blofeld of earmarks, went to jail for bribing members of Congress to slip goodies into bills to benefit his clients. And former California Republican Rep. Randy Cunningham went to prison for accepting bribes to facilitate earmarks enriching defense contractors.

So when earmarks were banned in 2011 in a bipartisan vote, the move was hailed a blow against waste, fraud and abuse. Yada, yada, yada.

Since the demise of earmarks, Washington has sunk into a stupor. And thatís because, despite the criticism of the evil nature of earmarks, they also served as the grease that churns the wheels of government.

Without the carrot of earmarks, congressional leadership saw their juice shrink to cajole, threaten and curry the favor of recalcitrant members of their respective caucuses to cooperate on legislation.

Gone were the days when the leaders of the Senate or the House could approach a member and say, "Hey, that $3 million you want to fund the earwax museum back home looks awfully nice. It would be a shame if something happened to it. By the way, I really need your vote on my budget bill."

Despite the abuses, earmarks actually account for a fairly small amount of money in the federal budget, a modest price to pay for bipartisan productivity.

If you want high-minded virtue there is always church on Sunday. If you want a legislative body to actually work together to solve issues, $103,000 allocated to find out why sunfish prefer tequila to gin is a pretty good investment.

After a year in office, Donald Trump may have finally figured out how Washington works. Itís not a gathering of eagles. Itís an Artful Dodger den of dealmaking. Thereís a book in there somewhere.

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