July 8, 2010

Earmark ban easily bypassed


Just one day after leaders of the House of Representatives announced a ban on earmarks to profit-making companies, Victoria Kurtz, the vice president for marketing of a small Ohio defense contracting firm, hit on a creative way around it.

To keep the taxpayer money flowing, Ms. Kurtz incorporated what she called the Great Lakes Research Center, a nonprofit organization that just happened to specialize in the same kind of work performed by her own company — and at the same address.

The most bothersome aspect is the companies don't even really try to hide what they're doing. They shuffle some papers around, create a few front nonprofits and the earmark money continues to flow unabated. While they may be in technical compliance with the ban, they are obviously not in compliance with its spirit.

But do we make too much of these earmarks? Matthew Yglesias thinks our current system makes attempts to ban earmark money unfeasible:

If you have geographically based constituencies each represented by a single member, and a system of entrepreneurial politicians who are supposed to raise their own money, and you have relatively weak party discipline, then you’re going to have members of congress acting in support of idiosyncratic local interests.

Because representatives are only responsible to voters of their district, what downside is there in trying to get as many earmarks as possible? While the practice may offend fiscal hawks and good government reformers across the nation, the only voters who matter to a politician are those in their district. And if the voters are happy they will continue to vote for the politician.

Just look at the careers of John Murtha and Robert Byrd. They both were unabashed proponents of "bringing home the bacon" and they both spent decades in Congress. Byrd was the longest serving Senator in United States history and the people of West Virginia never got tired of the money he brought in.

So what (if anything) can be done to reign in abuses in the earmarking system? Short of abolishing the entire process, I'm not sure. Publicly shaming profligate earmarkers and more transparency for the companies might clean up the practice at the margins, but I doubt it will fundamentally alter its trajectory.