A senator’s farewell wish: More bacon

I never thought I’d say this. Maybe Congress should bring back… earmarks.

An analogy. Like many cars today, mine requires expensive, synthetic motor oil. Oil changes cost something like $75. The alternatives — skipping lube changes or letting the levels get too low — risks a seized engine. A car that goes nowhere, but doesn’t require oil changes.

Congress has let its engine seize, evidenced by its endless state of impasse.  Friday it goes on a seven week recess without a Defense authorization bill finished, nothing close to a 2017 budget, and much unfinished work on Veterans Affairs, and many other issues.

Barbara Mikulski
Outgoing Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) says earmarks — also known as “congressionally directed projects” — provide incentives for members of opposing views to compromise.

Why? To one retiring senator’s way of thinking, it’s because of earmarks — or rather, the elimination of earmarks.

As Roll Call’s David Hawkings says in this interview and in his column, the elimination of earmarks, now in its fifth year, has drained Congress of the oil that makes legislation turn over. That’s according to the outgoing  Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).  The Maryland Democrat says earmarks —in Hill-speak, “congressionally directed projects” — provided goodies that encouraged members of opposing views to compromise.

In her final markup session as Appropriations Committee chair, Mikulski exhorted her colleagues, “If I could say one thing to all of you: Bring back congressionally directed projects.”

Maybe she’s right. Mikulski points out that earmarks never accounted for more than 3 percent of federal spending. What’s that compared to the 15 percent (15 percent that agencies admit to) of entitlement spending that fraud and abuse represents?

Maybe it’s cynical, maybe it gives up on the Founding Fathers’ ideas of republican government. Cynical in that it accepts a certain level of wasteful spending, caving in that it acknowledges the permanence of partyism and factionalism and every other kind of -ism.

A counterargument says that gridlock is good. It means Congress can’t screw things up or make them worse than they are by passing too many laws.

As Hawkings points out, still another group — the good-government and watchdog types — points out that earmarks never really went away. They just dove underground. Now just a few powerful members  get most of the money in less visible ways.

B.A.M.’s musings won’t bring back earmarks. And for the next seven weeks Congress can do no right or wrong.

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