On The Tonight Show Monday, host Jimmy Fallon suggested that talk of a bi-partisan compromise leading to the selection of a new speaker of the House exemplifies “how crazy things have gotten” in Washington.
“Our government is so dysfunctional it might become functional,” he joked.
If only. Actually, it’s no laughing matter. Things are out of control, and not just because Congress is narrowly divided.
America is headed down the road to fiscal ruin and financial insolvency. Those who argue it can be avoided by tinkering with the tax rates are sadly misinformed. As Dr. Arthur Laffer so artfully demonstrated through his eponymic curve, there is a point at which additional taxation becomes counterproductive because it acts as a governor limiting productive economic activity.
The problem isn’t revenue. The government has plenty of money. As study after study has demonstrated, federal revenues were up over what they were projected to have been once the so-called Trump Tax Cuts were enacted. At the same time, total federal indebtedness is now just about equal to the total value of the goods produced and services provided in this country in a single year.
That’s unsustainable. Yet, because no one is willing to fall on their sword demanding new growth incentives, the only way to get at the problem is to reduce spending. Unfortunately, most federal politicos don’t want to take on that issue either.
Take earmarks, the practice through which a member of the House or Senate directs the government to spend money on a specific program or piece of business, usually to the direct benefit of their home state or district.
As a cost-saving measure as well as an exercise in imagery, earmarking was abolished during the tenure of House Speaker John Boehner. Now, says the public watchdog group Open the Books in a new report entitled “Earmarks: Return of the Swamp Creatures,” they are back with a vengeance.
The group says that more than 7,000 earmarks are now slipped into the spending process in each appropriations cycle. Not every member of the House or Senate asks for earmarks. Some pride themselves on not doing so but it still works out to 13 per member on average.
If that seems excessive, it is. Defenders of the process say it’s the only way, for example, for Republicans to make sure the Biden administration isn’t able to play political with federal transportation dollars. They say that left to his own devices, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg would direct the money for mostly local impact projects to endangered Democrats and into swing states, depriving GOP incumbents of being able to campaign for re-election saying they “brought home the bacon.”
With the economy headed eventually off a cliff, continuing earmarks amounts to malpractice. It reflects an inability to put country over party or personal electoral ambition. According to the Open the Books report, Congress earmarked more than 7,500 projects at a total cost of $16,012,272,565 in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 alone.
It’s true that $16 billion isn’t going to break the bank, but it’s still real money. The voters have the right to be concerned about the $1 million that went for a macadamia health nut initiative, the $2 million that went to the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the $6 million that went to institutions employing congressional spouses.
If we can’t agree that, as Open the Books says in its list of takeaways, “Local projects of merit should be funded locally” then how are we ever going to get out of the debt pit in which the pandemic-era lockdowns left us mired?
As tiny grains of sand make up mighty deserts and little drops of water come together as oceans, these so-called insignificant bits of public largess contribute to the overall spending problem. If those can’t be handled, how will big problems like entitlements ever get resolved?
A former UPI senior political writer and U.S. News and World Report columnist, Peter Roff is a senior fellow at several public policy organizations, including the Trans-Atlantic Leadership Network. Contact him at RoffColumns.
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