Thursday, March 11, 2010

Earmarks in the House

On Wednesday, House Democratic leaders banned budget earmarks awarded to for-profit industries. Looking for the moral higher ground, House Republicans pushed to extend the ban across the board, to for-profits and non-profit institutions alike. The Senate is yet to come along and, according to Senator Daniel K. Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is unlikely to do so.

This is one of those puzzles of American Democracy that never ceases to amaze me.

Consider, first, the reasons that led to the ban on earmarks. The practice is rife with corruption and has led to political embarrassments in many instances, sometimes to criminal investigations and ethics inquiries. This is the classic congressional pork; in the last fiscal year alone, Congress doled out $16 billion dollars in this awards.

These facts alone would seem to indicate that members of Congress would use earmarks at their peril. After all, should not the electoral process take care of this problem, assuming it is a problem in the first place? Take the case of Peter J. Visclosky, an Indiana Democrat presently under investigation by the FBI. Could the voters in Indiana's first congressional district possibly vote for him ever again? And if so, wouldn't that be the clearest indication that they approve of his work and the earmarks he has directed to their district?

One answer is that it should not take a federal investigation, much less an indictment, to stop this corrupt practice. I get that. But this answer actually reinforces the puzzle to which I alluded earlier. Short of an indictment, is the point that constituents do not mind earmarks at all, and in fact welcome them?

This puzzle comes up in election law debates often. My favorite one is the almost universal call for courts to put a stop to the odious gerrymandering of state and congressional districts, where candidates win without much of a fight. The argument is that constituents have no real choice. In the end, this argument gives voters very little credit. After all, elections must still take place, and votes must be counted. A majority within the district must choose the winning candidate.

I know that constituents love their representatives yet Congress as a whole gets low approval ratings. This is one of those cases when that axiom is clearest. When members of Congress direct money to their districts, constituents rejoice in the fact that their elected representatives are doing a good job. This is why earmarks are to Congress what alcohol is to an alcoholic.

But make no mistake, to the untrained eye, this is Democracy at its finest. In fact, if you asked the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, this might be the price we must pay for our First Amendment.

So maybe it is the Senate, that most undemocratic of institutions, that finds itself on the right side of Democracy on this one.