Should any naive idealist still embrace the quaint notion that our country’s brief experiment in democracy fulfills the purpose of “representative government,” a cursory glance at the way the Appropriations committees of the United States Senate and House of Representatives operate will cloud even the sunniest outlook.
How we, the tax-paying citizens of America, spend our collective money gets decided by the well-dressed whores we send to Washington, to whom the phrase “campaign contribution” is almost always misheard as “earmark.” Otherwise known as “pork,” these earmarks are allocations for local projects that get tucked into the federal budget, usually at the last minute (before voting) and usually without even the most rudimentary review of their usefulness, fairness, or necessity. Last year, 15,584 earmarks worth a combined total of $32.7 billion were attached to appropriation bills — a figure, coincidentally, nearly 4 times the annual budget of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Who exactly slipped in these grants, which may or may not be going to worthy recipients, can only be guessed at since no public record exists of which member of Congress orchestrated the handout. Keeping the process murky, our trusted lawmakers and the lobbyists who bankroll them act in dark collusion to conceal how rob the average American by those in power. We can’t say for certain which politicians are participating most grievously in this ongoing criminal enterprise; we can, however, safely deduce that states whose representatives chair the appropriations committees get more handouts than their population would seem to warrant. As reported by Ken Silverstein in Harper’s, last year’s omnibus bill — the one that keeps the government from shutting down from lack of funding — contained hundreds of earmarks for Alaskan projects, including $1.1 million set aside for alternative salmon products, $443,000 specifically for the development of baby food containing the fish. Alaska’s pork bounty amounted to $2,211 per capita, about twenty-two times the national average. From 1997-2004, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee was Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
The new chairman, Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), a cynic might assume, had a hand in getting $2.6 million earmarked for Mississippi State University’s Thad Cochran Research, Technology, and Economic Development Park. The top Democratic pork master, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, managed to win an earmark for a Coast Guard facility in his state, despite West Virginia being completely landlocked.
The present system encourages states to steal from each other and to keep electing the most senior thief to his post so that a state doesn’t move down the trough when appointments are made to the Appropriations Committee. The present system encourages benefactors to become recipients and to play along in the great charade of elected office. The friends of members of Congress — friends being the wealthy corporations and individuals who donate money through PACs to the local capo — are the ones who will get a return on investment when it’s time to start carving up the federal budget into tasty portions, spiced just the way the constituents like it. Come campaign time, everyone running for Congress will howl and wail about the profligacy of our lawmakers, about how excessive spending has become. But we the voters insist on sending our incumbent boys and girls back to the money buffet on our behalf, confident that they’ll bring home plenty of doggie bags to their loyal pets.
This state of affairs isn’t democracy. It’s organized crime.