Monday, March 23, 2009

Missing the mark

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 22, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Earmarks are fast becoming the “Madoff” or, worse yet, the “A.I.G.” of contemporary politics. An undeserved fate.

Consider that government budgets are a combination of entitlements, programs, and “earmarks” disguised as or incorporated into entitlements and programs.

The difference between these earmarks and those added by legislators in the next stage of the budget process is that they are proposed by the executive branch and the bureaucrats who construct the executive budgets. The legislators’ earmarks are toxic. The executive/bureacrats’ are not.

The way to detoxify the legislators’ contributions is with line-item vetoes.

This idea gets shot down in Washington by legislators who are protecting their branch's rights. The fact that it does no such thing is assiduously ignored. What happens without a line-item power is that the earmarks grow like cancer, which is bad, and executives sign a budget bill that they must have which is loaded with pork.

Earmarks which have to pass a line-item veto test fulfill several roles in the budget bill process which are at least useful may even be desirable. These earmarks give individual legislators a chance to bring worthy but overlooked priorities to the attention of the executive branch and the legislative leaders. Some pork is or can be made into bacon.

They also give legislators a way to get insistent constituents and interest groups off their backs and legislative leaders a way to buy essential votes from the philosophically obtuse and/or the members of the inevitable sleaze caucus which is present to a greater or lesser extent in every legislative body.

The earmarks get added to the budget bill. The earmarking legislators vote for the bill. If the earmarks are unworthy the legislative leaders make sure they are accessible to an executive veto. If the executive doesn’t find them worthy, they are vetoed. The vetoes are sustained. A leaner budget bill becomes law.

The government gets an essential budget bill. The legislators either get their earmark or get a story and an excuse to mollify their constitutents. The system works.

Only purists or poseurs like the late Senator Bill Proxmire, who made enemies of his 99 peers and a reputation for pettifogging frugality with his infamous “golden fleece” awards, are inconsolable.

Get the line-item veto where it doesn’t exist, and get the benefits of earmarks which are endemic, incurable, and maybe even desirable.

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