Project 21 New Visions

 

Deneen Borelli

Earmarks Rob Taxpayers to Benefit Politicians


by Deneen Borelli (bio)

Remember "The Mod Squad" television series that ran on ABC from 1968 to 1973? Chronicling three diverse, hipper-than-hip young cops working in the counter-culture movement of the day, the network promoted it with the tagline "One White, One Black, One Blonde."

A similar group seems to have formed among some prominent New York lawmakers. Instead of Pete, Linc and Julie, however, the team is now composed of Senator Charles Schumer (D), Representative Charles Rangel (D) and Senator Hillary Clinton (D).

Call them "The Rob Squad."

Today, it's all about "earmarks" - in which lawmakers insert amendments into legislation so taxpayer dollars are spent on special interest projects in their states or districts. Elected officials like earmarks because they generate positive media coverage and earn them a reputation of creating jobs and stimulating the local economy.

One not-so-groovy example of an earmark is the one for The Museum at Bethel Woods - also called the "Woodstock museum" - because it focuses on the 1969 counter-culture music festival held nearby. While the museum was largely financed by billionaire Alan Gerry, Senators Schumer and Clinton teamed up to earmark $1 million for it in the funding bill for the federal Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services.

Purely by coincidence, Gerry and his family donated $20,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $9,200 to Clinton's presidential campaign after the earmark was introduced.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who initiated an amendment to block the Woodstock museum earmark, said, "It's institutional corruption. Especially during a time of war, why are we giving money to a performing arts center to fund some hippie flashback?" Senator Coburn's amendment passed on a voice vote - keeping the earmark out of that bill - but there can be no doubt that the desire to introduce it again is still alive.

Another "far-out" idea from House Ways and Means Chairman Rangel is a $2 million earmark he obtained to help create the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. The earmark includes funding for the Charles Rangel Library, the Rangel Conference Center and a personal office for Rangel's use. The majority of the Center's estimated $30 million cost is supposed to be paid by individuals, foundations and corporate donors. Taxpayers, however, are still helping build yet another office - in addition to an existing district office in the smallest congressional district in America - for a man who pleads "I'm 76 years old... I don't buy green bananas" when asked about continuing the Bush tax cuts past 2010.

In this case, pride is the apparent motivation. When Representative John Campbell (R-CA), who was elected to the House in 2005, questioned the earmark on the House floor, Chairman Rangel - who was first elected in 1970 - replied: "I would have a problem if you did it, because I don't think that you've been around long enough to inspire a building like this."

Rangel's project, also known as the "Monument to Me" earmark, is in the same spending bill as the proposed Woodstock museum earmark. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) proposed an amendment to block Rangel's earmark, but the amendment was not as successful as Senator Coburn's efforts and the earmark was saved by a vote of 34-61.

President Bush later vetoed the bill because it contained too much spending.

Earmarks are not just for "The Rob Squad." Citizens Against Government Waste found 2,272 additional earmarks in that same bill alone. Earmarks are hard to get rid of anywhere because few lawmakers want to risk his or her own earmarks by opposing someone else's. According to the Club for Growth, Representatives Campbell, Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) and Scott Garrett (R-NJ) presented 50 amendments in 2007 to strike earmarks from various bills. Only one was accepted.

After Democrats won majority status, they pledged Congress would be more fiscally responsible and beholden to ethics reform and full disclosure. President Bush signed "The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007" into law, calling for greater transparency by requiring the sponsors of earmarks to disclose who benefits from them and how much. Some Democrats are now trying to circumvent the law by claiming the disclosure provisions are limited. So much for campaign promises.

There's nothing groovy about pork-barrel earmark spending when it comes to our hard-earned tax dollars. Like the 60s, such irresponsibility should be a thing of the past.

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Deneen Borelli is a fellow with the Project 21 black leadership network.  Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.


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