March 4, 2009  ·  Lessig

Hoyer to W.H.: Hands off our earmarks - Alex Isenstadt - POLITICO.com

Herein brews perhaps the first important battle of reform for this President. I have long thought the President should resign his membership in the Democratic Party — not because he doesn’t or shouldn’t share the values of the Democratic Party, but because it is time we recognize we need a President above either partisanship (which got us the “Contract with America”) or bipartisanship (which got us the Iraq War). But Hoyer’s behavior here makes the point most starkly.

Earmarks are a cancer: Not because they consume a large part of the budget — they don’t; not because we shouldn’t be spending money — we should. But because they feed the system of corruption that is the way Washington works. They are the cornerstone of a system feeding the worst of the lobbying mafia (another plug here for So Damn Much Money), which itself is the cornerstone of K St. capitalism. It was a mistake for Obama not to join McCain in targeting them during the campaign. It is a fantastic thing that he is beginning to target them now.

Cancers can be benign or malignant. This cancer is malignant when it feeds K St. capitalism. It is benign when it is simply a locally informed direction to how the government’s money (aka, the people’s money) should be spent.

And apropo of the benign form of this cancer: I’ve agreed to help Congresswoman Jackie Speier with an experiment for earmark reform. (Decidedly and clearly progressive) Congresswoman Speier voted against the appropriations bill because of the earmarks in the bill. But as reported in the SF Chronicle:

Speier is now trying a novel experiment: She’s put together a citizen’s oversight panel to recommend projects for federal funding, chaired by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, a critic of earmarks, and including local elected, business and labor leaders. If the model works, she may offer legislation to expand it nationally.

The panel will meet in 3 or 4 public hearings over the next month of so to review earmark proposals. We will then report our recommendations back to her.

The citizen panel idea is completely Speier’s. It is a brilliant idea with enormous potential. More on the potential soon.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Which “citizens” get to be on the panel? How do they insulate themselves from conflict-of-interest?

    [Joke deleted, because the last time I made a similar joke, it was an enormous negative for me :-( ]

  • Peter

    Awesome arguments. I was sad to see one of my Senators from WA state near the top 10% of requesters. The second paragraph is incredible. This is the kind of dialog we need to hear on the news, not Rush and friends.

  • Nick

    why have federal spending for local projects? why not return the federal money like dividends to the investing taxpayer and have state/local taxes pay for these projects? do the herald trumpets still blow in retreat for federalism?

  • Jardinero1

    I believe that the best way to end earmarks and restore the republic would be to amend the Constitution with the deletion of two clauses: The commerce clause and the necessary and proper clause. With those two strikes, the Congress would become powerless and irrelevant, forever restricted to the puny list in Article 1, Section 8.

    I know many readers here would not approve, because they believe there are so many wonderful things a big bloated federal government can do for the people, earmarks not withstanding. To those I say say you still have the fifty states, each unchecked by enumerated powers, each having plenary police power and each a laboratory for progressive, liberal minded government. That’s where you can work your mischief.

  • http://mjdubnick.dubnick.net/ Mel

    Surprising to see the non-analytic turn in your approach. Can we have some way to distinguish “bad earmarks” from “good earmarks”? My sense was that “bad” stuff was that inserted into appropriations bill without due legislative consideration in the authorization process — which I have no trouble condemning. But it seems now that ANY local project that has somehow been “touched” by the lobbying process is being tainted and labelled “corrupt”.. “Throwing out the baby with the bath water” approach is just too high a price to pay. A thoughtless reformer is still a thoughtless person — so can we return to the more thoughtful Lessig that most of us admire….

  • http://samgreenfield.com/log Sam Greenfield

    I have to agree with Seth Finkelstein’s comments here.

    Quite frankly, I want my elected representation to heed the will of the people who elected them–not to appoint committees to give them advice. And while I understand the link between campaign donations and some earmarks, I’m curious which earmarks you would cut and which you would leave behind. And why.

    $7.7 billion dollars in earmarks represents less than 2% of a $410 billion dollar spending bill. The vast majority of the money spent by the federal government is spent on defense, debt service, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_budget Wouldn’t our time and energy be best spent focusing on reducing spending in these areas?

    For example, there are many defense programs that are not classified as earmarks while they appear to have political motivations. Wikipedia reports the development costs of the F-22 to be $65 billion dollars. Do we need this program when we are also developing the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) for $40 billion?

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  • Andrew

    Awesome article, and I agree 100%. In the spirit of improvement, I just want to point out one problem with the cancer analogy that may get in the way for an audience well versed in biomedical terminology. Cancers are never benign. Some *tumors* (neoplasms) are benign, some are malignant. The ones that are malignant are commonly referred to as cancers. So the decision about a tumor is basically “is it benign, or is it cancer”. This is definitional. It would, however, be fair to say that some malignant tumors (cancers) are more aggressive than others in either their tendency to grow, or to spread.

  • John

    Wouldn’t our time and energy be best spent focusing on reducing spending in these areas?

    Mr. Lessig answered that, and I echo it… “But because [earmarks] feed the system of corruption that is the way Washington works. They are the cornerstone of a system feeding the worst of the lobbying mafia…” that’s why we need to kill earmarks as they exist.

    I disagree with Mr. Lessig that forming Member appointed ‘citizen panels’ to replace lobbyists will improve the situation. The cancer is a lack of accountability, and there is little accountability in the citizens’ panel approach. Why will citizens’ panels be any more accountable or transparent than K street lobbyists? Why will they make better decisions? Collect globally, spend locally isn’t an especially good recipe for fiscal sanity. It sounds like a recipe for Congressional sinecures in an age of seniority, with long-lived Members bringing home other peoples’ bacon to distribute to pet projects of the Citizens’ Council (which was, after all, appointed by the same Member). If you have a local project, fund it with local funds. If you have a project that needs national support, then you need to put it in competition with all the other national priorities.

  • Max

    John commented,”The cancer is a lack of accountability, and there is little accountability in the citizens’ panel approach. Why will citizens’ panels be any more accountable or transparent than K street lobbyists? Why will they make better decisions?”

    Regarding “accountability” one group (lobbyists) are compensated and the other is not (a novel approach). Accountability and transparency regarding the panelists depends on you. The Citizen’s Oversight Panel (COP) is in part obligated to police the appropriations requests on your behalf, and you retain the right to review all submissions. Log on to Jackie Speier’s website, download each presentation, and put the time into reviewing them just like COP is doing. You can then express your opinion on the website. If you don’t take the time to do the homework, then you have your answers.

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    Surprising to see the non-analytic turn in your approach. Can we have some way to distinguish “bad earmarks” from “good earmarks”? My sense was that “bad” stuff was that inserted into appropriations bill without due legislative consideration in the authorization process — which I have no trouble condemning. But it seems now that ANY local project that has somehow been “touched” by the lobbying process is being tainted and labelled “corrupt”.. “Throwing out the baby with the bath water” approach is just too high a price to pay. A thoughtless reformer is still a thoughtless person — so can we return to the more thoughtful Lessig that most of us admire….

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