At long last, the spotlight is finally starting to shine on the warped policy of "earmarks" - those hidden little Congressional secrets that keep incumbent politicians popular at home while spending billions of your tax dollars without public input or discussion. President Bush - albeit too little and far too late - finally addressed the issue of earmarks during his State of the Union address this week. He pledged to veto the pork and rein in reckless spending.
I strongly suspect that when the smoke clears, when the campaign rhetoric has faded from memory and when some far-distant Congress is sworn into office, the earmarks will remain a dirty little secret in the halls of Congress.
For those who follow politics only in passing, earmarks are funding projects often added to a larger piece of legislation. They are approved with little or no discussion and avoid the sticky mess of public scrutiny. And by any definition, they are patently wrong. Show me the politician who will forever end the practice of earmarks and I'll show you a person of principle who will likely get defeated. People back home expect the pork because they never consider the price eventually paid.
One regional political leader was bemoaning the practice of earmarks just the other day and discussing the financial impact of pork on taxpayers. And then in the next breath, this political leader made a phone call to our Congresswoman urging funding for a study on a new bridge in this region. That's the way it works. It's pork if it's spent elsewhere - it's job creation and safety or economic development or farm parity if it hits closer to home. And we wonder how we got into this mess?
The poster child of the earmark movement was the "Bridge to Nowhere" - that costly little item would use millions of your tax dollars to fund an Alaskan bridge that would effectively serve about a dozen residents. But little has been said about Sen. Hillary Clinton's earmarks - the most of any senator - that would fund, among other items, a Gay Crisis Health Initiative that removes a current restriction against allowing immigrants with AIDS to come here for free treatment. Yet earmarks know not just one political party by any measure.
Granted, taken as a total, earmarks won't break the federal piggy bank. I mean, a few billion here and there, is just petty cash in the world of Washington, D.C. But there's a larger issue concerning earmarks. And that issue is the erosion of trust in our elected officials. All of the deals that go on behind closed doors may not always bode poorly for the American public. But it's an issue of transparency. When local self-interests in some far-flung region use our tax dollars with scant oversight of that spending, then elected government is doing an injustice to us all.
The long-awaited end to earmarks will not come from one speech, nor one veto, nor one executive order. The end will come only when we the voters demand that those we elect best serve the interests of all Americans.