Sunday, April 22, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Earmarks and hissy fits

Perhaps we're in the fix we're in because the fix isn't in.

Government slowly grinds to a standstill. Nothing works. Nobody wants to talk to anybody else. We lurch from one manufactured crisis to the next. And those who seem to get the greatest attention are the ones who have the least to say. At this rate, Abraham Lincoln is likely to get laid off from his own memorial.

In short, we've become — Greece.

How did this happen? How did the world's foremost military and economic superpower find itself on the verge of practically having to rely on payday lenders every few months to finance SEAL Team 6 operations?

If you had to settle on a date for the beginning of the perpetual political soap opera, the day when the United States went from being the cock of the international walk to the Joad family of governance, a good place to start might be 2010. That's when somebody came up with the not too bright idea that elected members of Congress had an obligation to be responsible. No good would come from this. And it hasn't.

It was in the wake of the rise of the disproportionate tea party influence that Washington decided to rid itself of the practice of earmarks. Those earmarks allowed members of Congress to slip goodies in the budget to benefit their states and districts. This was like expecting the Tampa Bay Lightning to voluntarily play without hockey sticks.

Pork barrel spending let politicians brag to their constituents about the wonderful largess they were returning to the taxpayers. The tea party had long whined that earmarks were prima facie evidence of wasteful government spending, citing pork like Alaska's infamous "bridge to nowhere."

Just because it's wasteful doesn't mean it isn't useful.

While approving a $1 million appropriation for the study of navel lint for the University of Skippy favored by Rep. Rufus T. Firefly might seem excessive, there was a method to the madness.

Earmarks allowed members of Congress the golden opportunity to bribe themselves. And they did it quite well. But when earmarks were eliminated, Washington lost sight of the first rule of governing, forgetting the late columnist Mike Royko's observation that Chicago's city motto ought to be: "Ubi Est Mea" — or "Where's mine?"

It is no surprise that Washington's inability to reach consensus on even a joint resolution honoring amber waves of grain coincided with the demise of earmarks and the House speaker's inability to decide which pork would be approved.

Without the looming threat to bury a member's earmark for $20 million to build the Rep. Boss Tweed Institute For Ethical Government at Bernie Madoff University, what incentive does a member of Congress have to follow the speaker's direction to vote a certain way?

There's been conjecture that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Jeeves, has thrown his lot in with the tea party Mad Hatters over the budget crisis that threatens to shut down the United States government unless Obamacare is defunded because he fears losing his job. What's the point of being speaker if you are unable to indulge in the abuse of power from time to time?

The demise of earmarks, which removed the ability for leadership to kneecap recalcitrant members of Congress, has left Boehner as speaker in name only — a figurehead with a big gavel, a nice office, a Secret Service detail and other assorted perks. But he has less influence over his Republican caucus than Spanky had over the Lil' Rascals.

Meanwhile, Washington burns while the inmates running the House asylum dawdle.

Forgive a pinch of cynicism. Don't you suppose that if the numerous Col. Kurtzes of the House tea party had various earmarks in the appropriations pipeline, stuff like $50 million for the Koch brothers to be carved into Mount Rushmore, the present budget/Obamacare funding/debt ceiling hissy fit would never have reached this crescendo of insanity?

There's something to be said for having skin in the game to get anything accomplished. A little baksheesh on the line for the good folks back home also doesn't hurt.

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