Pence Swims Upstream Against Earmarks

February 11, 2008

Indiana Writers Group column for Feb. 12 and thereafter (730 words)

by Andrea Neal

Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, a founder and former head of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation here, made national news last week when his name was floated as a suitable vice-presidential running mate for Republican John McCain. One obvious credential is the lead role he’s played in the attack on congressional earmarks.

These are the pet projects, a.k.a. pork, which lawmakers routinely insert into mammoth budget bills with little or no public scrutiny. The 2008 federal budget included more than 11,000 of them worth $15 billion, a lesser amount from some previous years but a stunning figure nonetheless.

Both parties are equally guilty of earmark abuse, though not equally open to reform. A House Republican proposal to place an immediate moratorium on earmarks – while a bipartisan review of the practice takes place — was killed Feb. 7 on a procedural vote of 204-196.

Seven Democrats joined Republicans in the otherwise party-line vote. Three were from Indiana: Joe Donnelly (District 2), Brad Ellsworth (District 8) and Baron Hill (District 9). Either they’re concerned about being branded pork barrel spenders in the fall election or realize this issue resonates with Hoosier voters.

Since 1996, the number of annual earmarks has jumped from 958 to 11,738. They became a subject of ridicule in 2005 after Congress agreed to pay for a bridge in Alaska to connect Ketchikan (population 8,900) with an airport on the Island of Gravina at a cost to taxpayers of $320 million. It became known as the Bridge to Nowhere.

In last year’s budget bill, lawmakers approved the “Ferry to Nowhere,” $20 million to help fund a Navy-designed vessel that will serve as a ferry from Anchorage, Alaska to Point MacKenzie, benefiting just 40 people who work at the point.

Frustrated voters have organized into Citizens Against Government Waste, which hands out a Porker of the Year Award; Taxpayers for Common Sense, which enlists ordinary citizens’ help in watch-dogging earmarks; and Sunlight Foundation, which plots earmarks on a map so citizens can see what pork barrel projects have landed in their neighborhoods.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., called Republicans hypocrites during floor debate and said more earmarks were attached to the budget when the GOP ran Congress than there are now.

Pence has not only admitted that fact, but blamed out-of-control earmarking by Republicans as one factor in their loss of the majority in 2006. Pence also has confessed to seeking earmarks every session he’s been in Congress. But he says he’s never traded a vote for an earmark, a common if unseemly practice, and he was among the first to post every appropriations request he makes on his website for all to see.

Which gets to the crux of what’s wrong with earmarks. The mere act of spending money on a project is not pernicious. The House of Representatives’ constitutional job is to appropriate money and there’s no way every taxpayer will benefit from every expenditure.

The problem is the way in which so many earmarks are placed secretively and at the last minute into 3,000-page budget bills during conference committee negotiations without public input.

As Pence wrote in the Feb. 5 Washington Times about last year’s omnibus spending bill: “Members did not have time to review it. If they had, they would have found that it contained wasteful earmark spending ranging from funding fruit fly research to building swimming pools to providing for wine and culinary centers. Most egregious, they would have found that nearly 300 unexamined earmarks costing more than $800 million were dropped in at the last minute, in the middle of the night, immune to public debate or scrutiny until after the fact.”

This is the kind of conduct that disgusts taxpayers to the point of rebellion. It’s a modern form of taxation without representation and it’s got to stop. Yet the House wouldn’t even agree to a temporary hold on earmarks pending a study and those who did were accused of being hypocrites. Pence is right when he says it’s time for fundamental reform.

Etymologists trace the word earmark to the 16th century when it was used to describe distinctive cuts made in the ears of livestock to mark ownership. That literal definition comes pretty close to what happens these days to taxpayers when lawmakers insert earmarks into budget bills. To use a different metaphor, it’s a death of 1,000 cuts, which, unless the House does something, will continue to cost taxpayers billions.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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