Earmarks need to go

Commentator Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

BRIAN WATT: Republican Congressional leaders this week launched efforts to garner support for a new proposed House rule that would require more information to be made public about the origins of special appropriation set-asides known as earmarks. But commentator Robert Reich argues the proposal under consideration doesn't go far enough.


ROBERT REICH: The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has ballooned to the point there are over 60 of them for every single member of Congress. And they spent $2.4 billion last year. What do you think the lobbyists bought with that money?

A lot of it's called "earmarks"— special spending that's stuck into pieces of legislation to benefit particular constituents, like that Alaskan bridge to nowhere in last year's highway bill, and the special casino licenses that got lobbyist Jack Abramoff into trouble.

Ten years ago there were about 3,000 earmarks. Last year there were over 14,000, costing taxpayers over $47 billion according to the Congressional Research Service.

Last January, after the Jack Abramoff scandal had spread to staffers of former House Whip Tom DeLay and Ohio Republican Bob Ney, and after FBI agents found an unexplained $90,000 cash in the freezer of Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson, and after former California Republican Duke Cunningham pleaded guilty to bribery — after all that — it seemed like the House was so embarrassed it would clean itself up. At least that's what Speaker Dennis Hastert promised.

Well, think again. Last spring the House passed a wimpy bill that barely touched earmarks and didn't even ban gifts and meals from lobbyists. And even that bill is now stalled somewhere between the House and Senate.

With the mid-term elections less than two months away, House leaders are feeling a little bit of heat. So their latest idea is to require by House rules that legislation containing earmarks list members of Congress who sponsored them.

That's not reform. That's advertising. There's no mystery about who sponsors which earmark. Just look at whose district the earmarked money will go to.

The only meaningful reform is to ban all earmarks, period. They're taxpayer rip-offs. They amount to bribery. And if this Congress won't clean up its act, we should clean up Congress and throw the rascals out.

WATT: Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich now teaches public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. In Los Angeles, I'm Brian Watt. Thanks for joining us and have a great day.

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