INSIGHTS: EARMARKS ENDURE IN CONGRESS
Guest Columnist: Tom Schatz, President, Citizens Against Government Waste
Pork-barrel spending is alive and well in Washington, D.C., despite claims to the contrary. For the fifth time since Congress enacted an earmark moratorium that began in fiscal year (FY) 2011, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has unearthed earmarks in the appropriations bills.
In fact, members of Congress have steadily ramped up the use of earmarks in each year since the initiation of the earmark moratorium. The 2017 Congressional Pig Book exposes 163 earmarks in FY 2017, an increase of 32.5 percent from the 123 in FY 2016. The cost of earmarks in FY 2017 is $6.8 billion, an increase of 33.3 percent from the $5.1 billion in FY 2016. While the increase in cost over one year is disconcerting, the 106.1 percent increase over the $3.3 billion in FY 2012, the first year after the moratorium, is downright disturbing.
Worse yet, members of Congress like Reps. John Culberson (R-Texas), Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) are attempting to overturn the moratorium. On November 16, 2016, eight days after an election that was supposed to “drain the swamp” in Washington, they filed an amendment to “modify” the moratorium during a House Republican Conference meeting. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) proposed a delay of such a vote until the first quarter of 2017. The issue is still outstanding.
In the midst this debate, it is important to remember why the moratorium was deemed necessary. The movement gained traction because of a number of factors, including the tireless work of members of Congress such as Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.); high-profile boondoggles such as the Bridge to Nowhere; and a decade of scandals that resulted in jail terms for Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio), and lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
One of the most frequently used arguments in favor of earmarks is that they would help pass certain spending bills. In the past, however, members have voted for excessively expensive legislation because they have received a few earmarks, which means the moratorium has helped restrain spending. A return to rampant earmarking would inevitably increase the risk of corruption and the potential for an explosion in expenditures compared to current levels.
Earmarks create a few winners (appropriators, special interests, and lobbyists) and a great many losers (taxpayers). They contribute to the deficit directly, by tacking on extra funding, and indirectly, by attracting votes to costly legislation that might not otherwise pass. Earmarks corrupt democracy by eclipsing more important matters in the minds of legislators and voters.
The 25th installment of CAGW’s exposé of pork-barrel spending includes $9 million for the aquatic plant control program; $5.9 million for the East-West Center, an earmark championed by Senate Appropriations Committee member Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii); and $5 million for Save America’s Treasures grants, which in the past has supported the restoration and operation of theatres, museums, and opera houses.
The projects in the 2017 Congressional Pig Book Summary symbolize the most blatant examples of pork. To read the full report, go to PigBook.org.
ON THE ECONOMY: IF WORDS COULD KILL
John Dunham, Managing Partner, John Dunham & Associates
You keep a diary of your dreams, so when you fell asleep late last night I had a look. It’s so profound, I couldn’t put it down. Half the words that you wrote were true. Then I read that you’re leaving me soon!
My world stood still and if words could kill they would be written by your hand. These lyrics begin the song If Words Could Kill written by Fran Feely and recorded by the British band, The Silver Factory.
Words matter. It would be difficult to have a society without words. As Steven Hawking says in Keep Talking by the Pink Floyd, For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination – we learned to talk. Without words we cannot have an economy, we cannot have businesses, we cannot have marriage, we cannot have political discourse. Unfortunately, over the past few years, the value of our words has diminished because they have in many ways become meaningless.
Ann Coulter put it very well in a column that she wrote this month entitled, How Delta Airlines Wrecked American Health Care. I like Ann, but she can be quite bombastic. It’s her job to be so. But this is not a bombastic column at all. It is a very reasonable one, and it brings to light one reason why there is so much disagreement in American politics.
Coulter writes, When we’re allowed to call things whatever we want in order to win an argument, there is a total breakdown in democratic politics, fair commerce and social interaction.
Take a minute and read that quote again. There is nothing bombastic here, and I think everyone, be they Democrat or Republican, young or old, conservative or liberal can basically agree with the statement. It is simply repeating what Dr. Hawking said – if we can’t talk to each other we are no different than the animals.
Let’s look at two current examples that Ms. Coulter brought up in her column. As I write this column the Senate just failed to pass what was billed as a skinny repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In the debate, those against the repeal discussed how millions of people would lose their insurance if Obamacare were to be eliminated.
Ok let’s start here. First, Obamacare is not an actual thing. There is no law creating, funding or doing anything actually called Obamacare. This is a pejorative term used to tag the former President with what was to become a costly and cumbersome set of regulations, taxes, incentives and other matters that were designed to restructure the way that health care was delivered and paid for in America. Officially, this is called the Affordable Care Act, but as we have found out, the one thing this act surely did was to make health care virtually unaffordable.
From here things get worse. Terminology is being thrown around in this debate that is so detached from the words being used, that it makes it impossible to understand. Let’s start with the idea that the ACA (for lack of a better term) is health care. It is not. Health care is defined as the maintenance and improvement of physical and mental health, especially through the provision of medical services. It is, in short, the provision of medical services, something that, except in specific instances like VA hospitals, the Federal government does not do. The ACA is not health care.
Neither is it health insurance. Health insurance is defined as insurance against loss through illness of the insured; especially insurance providing compensation for medical expenses. The ACA may set up a bunch of regulations related to health insurance, but it is not in and of itself health insurance. About two-thirds of the actual health insurance that has been extended to people as a result of this law has been through the Medicaid program, a system that pays states to provide public funding for health care. This is a public entitlement program, not insurance.
So the ACA is not health insurance, but then again, neither is health insurance. Insurance is a form of risk management primarily used to hedge against the risk of a contingent, uncertain loss. It was first developed as a means of distributing risk among traders and ship owners. By pooling risk, the insured were able to better ensure that the loss of a ship or a cargo would not put them out of business. Health insurance is a means of pooling risk to ensure that those in the pool can pay the cost of care for a major illness or injury without going bankrupt. One does not insure against known and easily manageable costs, but rather to reduce the risk associated with large costs.
The so called insurance required under the ACA regulations does not do this. Rather the ACA forces companies operating in this marketplace to cover the cost of known minor expenses such as annual checkups or contraception, while at the same time making participants responsible for large deductibles if they were to face expensive conditions like a broken arm or a heart attack.
So the whole health care debate is not even about health care but rather about a set of rules, taxes and regulation surrounding the provision of insurance that is not really insurance. No wonder one cannot understand what is in the bill until it is passed.
This is just one example where the language surrounding an issue simply cannot make any sense because it is not tied to reality. Others abound both on the left and on the right.
People looking to build a life in America that are from other countries but do not have visas, work permits, ambassadorial status or other status granted to them by the Federal government are called by many on the left undocumented immigrants. But by definition, these people are not immigrants.
An immigrant is defined by the Federal government as an alien (anyone who is not a U.S. citizen or U.S. national) who has been granted the right by the Federal government to reside permanently in the United States and to work without restrictions in the United States. Immigrants by definition must be documented; therefore there can be no undocumented immigrants.
But Americans love immigrants. Most of us have stories about how our grandparents, or great grandparents immigrated to the country. We like Mexican food, Italian food, Greek food, even soccer (or as aliens call it, football). So in order to make undocumented aliens more palatable to the public, their supporters call them immigrant. However, when one starts calling illegal aliens immigrants, they disconnect the term from its meaning. They also bring the emotional appeal of immigrants and place it on an entirely different population.
The right is just as good at coming up with terms that are not attached to reality. With Tax Reform approaching we will hear a lot about the Death Tax. While the term may sound awful – my god they are taxing me even after I am dead! – it is also not possible. A tax, by definition is a charge usually of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes. Since the dead are neither persons nor property, the government cannot levy a tax on them. Governments do tax estates though as a form of income tax, and yes the estate tax is real. But estate tax sounds like a tax on the wealthy (since an estate is also a house like Downton Abbey), so by calling the estate tax a death tax, conservatives make it seem much more insidious.
These are just a few examples of how language clouds debate, and when debates become clouded and emotional it is difficult to reach consensus. This gives America an unworkable and expensive tax code, a health payment system that is overly complicated and expensive, and a system for managing immigration that penalizes people who abide by the rules. Maybe if half the words that you wrote were true in political debates and in the media, we could all come together and begin to fix some of the real problems that are dogging the American economy. But until we start talking in one language we will be just like the animals.