Earmark Nation

Earmark Nation

By Daniel Henninger - May 14, 2009

In the year of our nation, 2005, "earmark," a term of trade known only to political technicians, became a household word. The Bridge to Nowhere, a mere outlay of $320 million in that year's $2.5 trillion federal budget, led to the decline and fall of the Republican Party. In 2006, a disgusted American electorate threw Republicans from office, and transferred House control to the Democrats.

When earlier this week President Obama signed a $410 billion spending bill to keep the government running through the fall, every account of the event noted the 800-pound contradiction in the room. Mr. Obama had campaigned against earmarks, even saying he would cut them back to levels before 1994, the start of the Gingrich-GOP interregnum. Now here was Obama as president signing a bill soaked in earmarks.

In the course of explaining his way through this contradiction, Mr. Obama dropped a hard truth of modern American politics: "Individual members of Congress understand their districts best, and they should have the ability to respond to the needs of their communities."

This is the Murtha earmark defense. Rep. John Murtha, Democrat from Johnstown, Pa., is the current holder of what we might call the Ted Stevens Trophy, a rotating award for whichever Member of Congress the press is vilifying most for earmark abuse. Mr. Murtha's stock defense of the budget loot he has earmarked and shipped to Johnstown is that if he didn't do it, bureaucrats who know nothing about the real America would decide where to spend the money. That's what President Obama just said. Murtha himself calls the $787 billion stimulus package the Obama earmarks bill.

Mocking this presumed hypocrisy is good sport, but the Murtha example deserves a closer look. You just might find that you are staring at a Pogo problem: We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Consider: In March, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Dennis Roddy went to Johnstown and discovered the rationale its citizens had built around what Mr. Murtha does.

Briefly, this steel town was dying in the 1970s. The city fathers decided their future lay with John Murtha's seniority, and over the years his earmarks, in the billions, created companies that use the locals' skills, such as welding, to produce armor plating or Humvees. Johnstown became a mini-defense industry.

Listen to Daniel Henninger's Wonder Land column, now available in audio format.

Mr. Murtha says without apology: "Johnstown would have been like Detroit is today. We would have been a ghost town."

Along with this salvation, however, came such excesses as the John Murtha Airport, which has gotten $150 million of federal funds. It has three flights daily to and from one city -- Washington, D.C.

To this, the Johnstown locals likely would say, So what? That's probably what locals in congressional districts everywhere say about their earmarks.

About all this, John Murtha has said something to ponder: "If I'm corrupt, it's because I take care of my district."

When we speak of public corruption, we normally mean an official has been convicted of breaking a law. The bad pols did it. We are at the point, though, where it is hard to say that the corruptions of government are only about the politicians.

Murtha may be right. We are all earmarkers now.

Here's another way of putting it: The U.S. budget is now history's biggest mountain of swag; it is uncountable goodie bags filled with tax revenue. Mr. Obama's swag mountain, the fiscal year 2010 "budget," is $3.59 trillion high (25% of total GDP of about $14 trillion). His $800 billion stimulus bill was another pile of public cash. We the people have concluded that if we don't use the Honorable John or Nancy or Ted in Congress to get our piece of it, someone else will get it.

For the longest time, we were able to believe that these corruptions were the inevitable but petty price of politics. But I agree with John Murtha. It isn't petty anymore. It isn't just about amusing "pet projects." The whole system has become an earmark. The politicians have been shaping the system so that more and more people have to buy in to the earmark philosophy -- we pay, they decide -- or get left out.

Barack Obama isn't a reformer. He's the president of Earmark Nation. We are about to enact the Obama federal health-insurance entitlement, which on top of all the other entitlements and their limitless liabilities will require pulling trillions of dollars more into the federal budget. Whatever nominal public good this is supposed to achieve, it means that they, these 535 pols, most of them gerrymandered for life, will decide in perpetuity the details of how to dole it out.

When this experiment called the United States began some 200 years ago, neither the "liberals" nor "conservatives" of that time imagined their successors would have such vast sway over the nation's income, or that U.S. politics would be mostly factions begging and fighting to have fragments of it disbursed back to them. The phrase "pay to play" would have disgusted them.

"If I'm corrupt, it's because I take care of my district."

John Murtha of Johnstown is the canary in the mine shaft. In politics, the canaries don't die. They adapt and learn to live with the toxic fumes of public spending on scales beyond morality or understanding. We are just about there.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

Daniel Henninger

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter