Earmarks. Even though they account for less than one percent of the federal budget, Senator Tom Coburn has referred to them as a “gateway drug” that leads to more massive government spending. If we cannot trust Congress on earmarks, Coburn rightly contends, then how can we trust them to make larger cuts to bloated programs that are bankrupting the country, like entitlements?
The truth is we can’t, so anyone who favors earmarks should not be trusted to cut federal spending to any significant degree. And history has shown that to be the case. This is especially true with Senator Thad Cochran, even though he once called criticism of his spending ways “poppycock.”
With the passing of Senator Robert Byrd in 2010, Citizens Against Government Waste crowned Senator Cochran as the new “King of Pork” because of his fondness for spending by earmarks. And he has not disappointed his supporters, though that’s not the case with hardworking Mississippi taxpayers.
So what exactly is an earmark? It is a specific appropriation for a single pet project, often in the district or state of a member of Congress. Generally earmarks are tacked onto the end of appropriations bill once they arrive on the floor for a vote. They do not go through the regular channels of appropriations, meaning they are not subject to scrutiny in the full committee on appropriations or the budget, nor any of the relevant subcommittees.
The reason for this backdoor approach is because many of these earmarks are so ridiculous, like research grants for the study of fruit flies or cow flatulence, that no committee would ever approve them.
Just in recent years there have been earmarks for such pressing national priorities as the study of the sex life of Japanese quail, the breeding habits of the woodchuck, the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, teaching college students how to watch television, and a cool $1 million to preserve a sewer in Trenton, NJ as a historic monument.
As a nation, we have spent $175 million to maintain an unused monkey house, $1.8 million for a museum dedicated to old Las Vegas signs, $615,000 to digitize a Grateful Dead collection, and $823,200 to study genitalia washing in South Africa.
And though many of these silly projects create much amusement and make for good fodder in campaign speeches, it’s really no laughing matter.
It’s actually quite sad since those in Washington like Senator Cochran, and those around the country who hunger after government largess for their very livelihoods, are as addicted to these kinds of earmarks as a chronic alcoholic and are using our money to enrich themselves and their friends.
What was once a minor issue has become a major problem, as earmarks have simply gotten out of hand. In 1987 President Reagan vetoed a highway bill because of just 152 earmarks. By contrast, a 1982 highway bill had only 10. But Senator Cochran sided with liberal Democrats to override Reagan’s veto.
By 2005, earmarking bills, especially highway bills, had become such big business that President Bush signed a nearly $300 billion dollar appropriations bill that contained over 6,300 earmarks. In more recent years, earmark requests have reached over 15,000 specific projects costing tens of billions of dollars a year. And all this while total federal spending has exploded.
Fiscal hawks in Congress have long condemned the practice, which always seemed to increase during an election year, but with the arrival of the Tea Party movement, and the conservative sweep in the 2010 midterms, momentum to impose a ban on earmarks seemed unstoppable, at least on the Republican side of the aisle.
In November 2010, just after the midterms, Congress did finally impose a moratorium on earmarks. But Senator Cochran was one of only eight Republicans to vote against it.
Before the moratorium, Cochran had certainly earned his “King” moniker. In total, Congress earmarked 9,499 specific projects for $15.9 billion. And of that, Senator Cochran sponsored or co-sponsored 243 earmarks for nearly half a billion dollars, ranking him first out of 100 Senators. The year before, he sponsored 259 earmarks for more than $1.2 billion, including the single largest earmark in history, a $439 million project to restore the barrier islands off the Mississippi Gulf Coast, after taxpayers had already provided $80 billion in Katrina relief. And just in case you wondered, Senator Roger Wicker was right behind him in requesting earmarking that year.
Senator Cochran has opposed every effort to ban earmarks proposed by fiscal conservatives in Congress and voted to support egregiously wasteful earmarks like the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” a ridiculous appropriation of $400 million to construct a bridge to an island in Alaska with just 50 residents, even though it had a working ferry system. The government could have bought each resident a $1 million yacht and saved $350 million.
But Cochran has not limited himself to bridges in Alaska. He has either sponsored or co-sponsored other projects that seem dubious to say the least. There was the $450,000 given to the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation in New York State. A whopping $23,581,000 for the National Writing Project, a nonprofit organization that supports and promotes K-16 teacher training programs in the effective teaching of writing, which is located in Berkeley, California. There was nearly $5 million for reactive skin decontamination lotion and $1.6 million for dietary supplements research. Since 2008 Senator Cochran has earmarked over $2 billion in such pork.
To listen to the defenders of earmarking, most of it is done under the guise of helping the local economy and creating jobs in Mississippi, but that’s a progressive, Keynesian argument, and not unlike the economic philosophy of Barack Obama. One of the real, underlying reasons is good ole boy politics and mutual backscratching.
According to the Washington Post, in 2009 Cochran earmarked $12 million in spending for Raytheon Corporation, “whose officials have contributed $10,000 to his campaign since 2007. He earmarked nearly $6 million in military funding for Circadence Corp., whose officers — including a former Cochran campaign aide — contributed $10,000 in the same period. In total, the spending bill for 2010 includes $132 million for Cochran’s campaign donors, helping to make him the sponsor of more earmarked military spending than any other senator this year.”
The Post also notes that “Cochran says his proposals are based only on ‘national security interests,’ not campaign cash.” But the Defense Department did not want or ask for those requests. “Senator Cochran takes his responsibilities on the Appropriations Committee very seriously,” his spokesman Chris Gallegos responded to the Post story. “Senator Cochran does not, and never will, base his decisions on campaign contributions.” But it just doesn’t seem that way, now does it?
In his 2008 campaign for a sixth term, Cochran “collected more than $10,000 from University of Southern Mississippi professors and staff members, including three who work at the school’s center for research on polymers. To a defense spending bill … the Mississippi Republican has added $10.8 million in military grants earmarked for the school’s polymer research.”
We might also note that the Post reported that Southern Miss, “which would receive $10.8 million in Cochran earmarks, paid $40,000 to a firm that employs Cochran’s former legislative director, James Lofton, to help lobby on defense appropriations.” This is good ole boy politics at its finest.
But we are not done just yet. In that same year, Taxpayers for Common Sense noted that Senator Cochran “received $144,500 in campaign contributions from entities for which he requested earmarks. His biggest donor is shipbuilder and defense giant Northrop Grumman, which has contributed $24,050 to Cochran since 2007.”
And the money flows to other state interests, too. Columnist Sid Salter, who is a huge supporter of earmarks and bringing as much federal pork to Mississippi as possible, recently pointed out all the great appropriators the state has had in Washington. “Mississippians Cochran, the late U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, and the late U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten have all held the nation’s purse strings from Mississippi in those chairmanships because of the seniority Mississippi voters invested in them. The advantages those chairmanships have afforded Mississippi have been enormous.” And, unsurprisingly, Salter is throwing all his support behind Senator Cochran in his race against fiscal conservative Chris McDaniel.
But what vested interest does Salter have? As Jim McCullough recently wrote on the website Mississippi Pep, “Salter works as an employee of Mississippi State University. MSU is the recipient of millions of the federal dollars that Mr. Salter would like to see continue to pour in to Mississippi. Furthermore, the MSU President is Mark Keenum, a former Chief of Staff to none other than Senator Thad Cochran.” And in 2010 alone, MSU received over $41 million in earmarks from Senator Cochran.
Yet even though the nation’s debt has climbed to more than $17.4 trillion, and on its way to $18.2 trillion with passage of the latest debt ceiling increase, Senator Cochran believes in spending as much money as possible as a way to bring about prosperity, and he is basing his entire campaign this year on “bringing home the bacon.”
In remarks to a reporter from Roll Call, he bragged about his ability to deliver for Mississippi, the South, and to other states. “There are ways to persuade the administration on issues that are important to, you know, not just Mississippi but other — our region and other states as well. It’s not all just a matter of appropriating money, but policies that are importing to help small towns and rural communities and those who live there enjoy a high quality of life.”
In more recent comments to NBC News, he defended his record of earmarking bills with pork-barrel projects and his hopes to end the moratorium. “It’s not over,” Cochran said of the earmarking era. “I mean you know we’re up here in Washington to make recommendations about how federal dollars are to be spent. And if you really want to boil it down, that’s what an earmark is. … So, the process hasn’t been changed.”
And Cochran has plenty of defenders across the state, from elected officials, lobbyists, and Super PACs. One of his biggest supporters is Brian Perry, the treasurer of the Mississippi (Non) Conservatives Super PAC, funded and administered by the Barbours. He wrote in 2010 that eliminating “constitutional, accountable, responsive, earmarks is not the solution to over spending.” His constitutional arguments are often used by earmarking’s defenders. Congress appropriates money, this is true, but the Constitution lists the powers of Congress in Article 1 Section 8, and money can only be spent to bring into operation those enumerated authorities. Hand lotion and dietary supplements are not listed, I’m afraid. Yet he sees earmarking as a way to build up Mississippi.
In another column just after Senator McDaniel announced his candidacy, Perry wrote, “Imagine Mississippi without Cochran’s work and you’d see counties without hospitals, or without roads to get to where the hospitals are not. You’d see high fences around ghost towns where military bases were shuttered through BRAC because of missions Cochran wasn’t there to secure.
“There would be fewer police, those remaining would have less equipment. Our universities would be smaller with less research for our farmers and manufacturers. Wipe away Nissan and Toyota and those jobs. Also, wipe away much of the Gulf Coast.
“Don’t worry about the traffic where the interchanges are gone, because the development creating those jobs and residences would be gone, too. We would be proud that UMMC cured AIDS if only they had the research money and facilities to have done that. Also, let’s get rid of many city and county buildings, and water and wastewater infrastructure. We would have more of one thing: local taxes would be higher.”
Sid Salter made much the same argument in December of last year, hoping the race would center on earmarks, “Over the course of his career in Congress, Cochran has directed federal spending to Mississippi for projects … that concentrated on public education, public health and safety, the national defense, research, and quality of life issues in communities large and small.”
If one didn’t know it, you might think this Cochran fellow was God himself.
But despite all this impressive work from the Great Cochran, and all the federal dollars that pour into the state via the earmark, Mississippi ranks last economically in almost every category, including the most important one, which is per capita income. In 2013, Mississippi’s was just $33,000 annually, ranked 50th out of 50 States.
And Cochran’s defenders have no answer to that very important question, why? About the only thing they can possibly say in his defense is that perhaps we would be even poorer without his help. So by that logic we would be more last than we are now?
But it’s not really about economic growth and jobs. That argument has been destroyed so many times it’s incalculable. Though they might try to hang on that pathetic explanation, as we have shown, it’s really about corruption, cronyism, and living large off the backs of the taxpayers, all while the nation drowns in debt.
So do Cochran, Perry, and Salter think Mississippi can’t be self-reliant, that we are children incapable of self-government? Listening to the likes of Salter and Perry, one would think the apocalypse is upon us if we vote Senator Cochran out, that DC and Jackson might soon look like this if our current level of appropriations is cut:
But we know such scare tactics are just bunk. We the people of Mississippi are fully capable of self-government.
Senator Chris McDaniel is a proven fiscal conservative and is committed to restoring the nation to fiscal sanity. He has pledged to end earmarks. “The earmark ban is critical to helping restore the public’s trust in their elected officials and make some modest progress in curing Washington’s spending addiction,” he has said.
We must make a significant change in Washington on June 3. It’s time for the people to rise up, take up our pitchforks, and clean out the pigpen. Our very future depends on it.