ALEXANDRIA, VA — Deficit spending is skyrocketing. In December,
a report was issued under the auspices of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation,
the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Committee for a Federal Budget,
declaring that the U.S. is facing “a debt-driven crisis — something
previously viewed as almost unfathomable in the world's largest economy.”
This past year, the federal government ran a deficit of $l.4 trillion.
In 2009 alone, the public debt grew 31 percent, from $5.8 trillion
to $7.6 trillion, rising from 41 percent to 53 percent of the gross
domestic product (GDP).
The report was prepared by, among others, seven former directors
of the White House Office of Management and Budget, two former comptrollers
general of the United States, and seven former directors of the Congressional
Budget Office, as well as former chairman of the Federal Reserve System
Paul Volcker. The report declares that, unless strong remedial steps
are taken, the debt is projected to rise to 85 percent of GDP by 2018
and l00 percent four years later. By that time, they argue, the U.S.
economy could be in ruins.
Alice Rivlin, formerly a director of both the Congressional Budget
Office and the Office of Management and Budget and one of the authors
of the report, noted that, “Previously, when we were worried
about deficits, we could take comfort in the fact that the debt was
not very high relative to the economy. But now the debt has shot up.
The cushion is gone. If the same thing (a severe recession) happened
again, we wouldn't be able to borrow to deal with it.”
In the face of all of this, however, in the Congress — among both
Democrats and Republicans — it is very much business as usual. In
the last presidential campaign, both Senators Barack Obama and John
McCain expressed their opposition to congressional earmarks — the
pet projects members of Congress slip into spending bills that have
become a symbol of how Washington works and of its worst excesses.
Yet such earmarks remain alive and well in the current Congress.
In December, lawmakers set aside more than $4 billion in earmarks
in the 2010 defense appropriations bill and watered down efforts to
curb the practice of targeting spending for programs in members' districts.
As usual, many of the top recipients of earmarks in the defense bill
were high-ranking appropriators. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) got
37 earmarks totaling $l98.2 million. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.)
got 45 totaling $l67 million. On the House side, defense subcommittee
chairman John Murtha (D-PA) sponsored 23 earmarks totaling $76.5 million,
while ranking Republican C.W. "Bill" Young got 36 totaling
$83.7 million, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The case of the software firm MobilVox is illustrative. When MobilVox
wanted to break into the lucrative world of defense contracting, it
expanded operations from its Northern Virginia base in Rep. James Moran’s
(D-VA) congressional district to Murtha’s southwestern Pennsylvania
In addition to working with two of the most powerful members of a
House subcommittee that controls Pentagon spending, the company hired
lobbying firms that employed former top aides of the Democratic lawmakers
and Murtha’s brother. Company executives and their lobbyists
donated thousands of dollars to the two congressmen. Soon, funds began
to flow in the other direction.
Between 2003 and 2009, Murtha and Moran helped deliver $12 million
in earmarks to MobilVox. The latest House spending bill, introduced
and pushed through by Murtha, includes an additional $2 million earmark
for MobilVox requested by Moran. The Washington Post notes, “MobilVox’s
success fits a pattern of doing business in Washington that ethics
watchdogs deride as a 'pay-to-play' system — one that became infamous
during Republican years and continues to operate under a Democratic
leadership that had promised to change a 'culture of corruption' in
In one case, a $l00,000 earmark sponsored by Rep. James E. Clyburn
(D-SC), the Democratic whip, to go to the library in Jamestown, South
Carolina, ended up going instead to Jamestown, California -- 2,700
miles away and a town that does not even have a library. “That
figures for government, doesn’t it,” said Chris Pipkin,
who runs the one-room library in Jamestown, South Carolina, and earlier
in 2009 requested $50,000, not the $l00,000 that Congress designated,
to buy new computers and build shelves to hold the books strewn across
This library is just one of more than 5,000 earmark projects — totaling
$3.9 billion — tucked away inside the catchall spending bill Congress
sent to President Obama in December. He signed the $1.1 trillion bill,
which included such earmarks as $350,000 for the Appalachian Mountain
Club to study global warming’s effects on New Hampshire’s
White Mountains; $250,000 to replace bus shelters in Bal Harbour, Florida;
and $200,000 for outreach to and study of elderly Irish immigrants
in New York.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) went to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives
48 times last year to offer amendments to strip pork-barrel spending
projects from the annual spending bills. Each time he was defeated.
Rep. Flake — and other earmark opponents such as Senators John McCain
(R-AZ) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) — failed to win a single anti-earmark
vote in the House and Senate for the fiscal 2010 spending year.
President Obama persuaded lawmakers not to add funding earmarks to
the $787 billion stimulus package that Congress approved early in 2009.
Not long after that, however, Congress approved a $410 billion spending
bill full of earmarks. The President avoided a fight by saying that
the legislation was a holdover from the previous session of Congress,
when Republicans were in control. At the time, he said, the legislation
should “mark an end to the old way of doing business.” We
will see, as 2010 proceeds, if he is serious about making any real
Recent polls show that the country is evenly divided about President
Obama, but state governments are in disrepute and confidence in Congress
is at an all-time low. Frank Newport of the Gallup organization noted
in his year-end wrap-up, “Americans have less faith in their
elected representatives than ever before.” One important reason
for this lack of faith is wasteful spending — epitomized by the culture
The Conservative Curmudgeon archives
The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2009
by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald
All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which
is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has
been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and
the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.
He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing
editor to such publications as Human Events,
The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle
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