Friday, July 27, 2007

The Truth About Earmarks

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If we have heard or watched the news over the past two years or so, it is likely we have caught the word "earmark" in a reporter's mouth at some point. A strange word, certainly, but an earmark is not all that difficult to define once we get beyond its purposely obscure label. Originally, an earmark was just that: a mark made on an animal's ear to identify its owner. Yet, the word's etymology has only a slight connection to its political and financial usage today.

Congress' own definition, a quintessence of legalese, obscures the meaning even further:

"[C]ongressional earmark" means a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator providing, authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or Congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula-driven or competitive award process.

The generic definition is far clearer: "funds specified or set aside for a particular purpose." Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to direct appropriations of money drawn from the treasury, including earmarking funds to be spent on specific projects. A member of Congress can use earmarks to take credit for funneling federal monies toward a project in his district. Committee chairs make use of earmarks to negotiate the passage of favored bills or to reward support for them. Another advantage of earmarking is that earmarked funds bypass normal government-agency regulations, and thus they reach their recipients sooner and bound with less red tape. One can see why they are so popular.

The latest furor over earmarks began with the so-called Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere." In 2005, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, a Republican, earmarked $223 million to build a bridge from a town of less than 9,000 to an island inhabited by only fifty people, saving these constituents a short ferry ride. Due to the controversy, the earmark was removed, but the money still went to the Alaskan government, which may still use it for the same purpose.

Earmarking is not a sin of one party or another. Also in 2005, Democrat Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii earmarked $574 million for his home state, which is a paltry amount in comparison to the year's total earmarks of $19 billion, which was divvied among 13,496 approved requests, according to the White House's Office of Management and Budget. (However, the Congressional Research Service says there were 15,877 earmarks for all federal appropriations, totaling $47.4 billion, a significant disparity that may be explained by the use of different definitions of the term.) In 2005, when Republicans had the majority, 35,000 requests for appropriations were made in the House, and by mid-year 2007, 32,000 earmark requests had yet to be considered under the Democrats' control. Obviously, the party in power has the advantage in earmarking, but this does not hinder the minority party from requesting and using earmarks to get what it wants. Earmarking is an equal opportunity practice.

Earlier this year, both houses of Congress passed bills to bring modern fiscal earmarking closer to its agricultural roots. Recall that farmers or ranchers used physical marks on an animal's ear to identify it as theirs. Now congresspersons must attach their names to their earmarks and certify that they have no financial interest in the measure. The law requires members of Congress to own up to their pork!

Earmarks are a touchy political issue. First of all, neither party wants to touch earmarking because doing so would, , eliminate an individual politician's ability to "bring home the bacon" for his district, making reelection more difficult. Second, restricting earmarks would diminish the majority party's arsenal of power-politics weaponry. Thirdly, despite stating that they receive no financial benefits from their earmarks—and perhaps they personally do not receive any—their families often do. In his "Evans-Novak Political Report" on July 25, 2007, Robert Novak exposes the dirty little secret:

In fact, family members of senators and congressmen from both parties and in all regions of the country have for years benefited directly from the "Washington economy" of lobbying firms and government contractors, many of which would not even exist without the infusions of taxpayer money that earmarks provide each year. . . . This has never been considered improper, but few Americans know that a very small number of Washington-connected families negotiate, appropriate and benefit from large expenditures of taxpayer money on a small number of companies through the earmarking process.

Hence the reluctance on the part of most members of Congress to support any kind of earmark reform. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican, is probably fighting a losing battle to make earmarking more transparent, as even his party leadership has decided to let him go it alone. DeMint wants full identification and disclosure of spending requests, the detailed posting of earmarks on the Internet, and the elimination of secret committee earmarks that cannot be challenged in open session. His party leaders, however, are willing to let Democrats—who want these restrictions no more than Republicans do—take the public heat for failing to pass meaningful reform legislation.

What is earmarking then? It is legal plundering of the public treasury for both public and private purposes, a kind of above-the-board payola that Congressmen and –women can use at their discretion to remain in office and to fund their pet projects. As Novak writes, "This has never been considered improper," but only because the Constitution "allows" it and everyone does it. The morality or ethicality of the way this Congressional power is used is rarely discussed.

Scottish jurist and historian Alexander Fraser Tytler is credited with observing:

A democracy . . . can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.

This, along with God's promise of coming with a rod against those who gain "treasures of wickedness" (Micah 6:9-16), should brace us for a tumultuous future.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Dark Side of Government

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The federal government just did the state of North Carolina a big favor. Over the past couple of years, it investigated, indicted, tried, and convicted the former Speaker of the State House of Representatives, Jim Black, a Democrat from the Charlotte area, on federal corruption charges. He has been sentenced to serve 63 months in federal prison and to pay a $50,000 fine. It seems that Mr. Black, an optometrist by trade, had taken several under-the-restaurant-table payments totaling $29,000 from chiropractors to move favorable legislation through the House. Many observers of North Carolina state politics believe that he was caught for only one among many instances of political skullduggery.

(c)Chris Seward/Raleigh News and ObserverBlack—oh, the irony of that name!—had been top dog in the House for four terms, giving him a tight hold on legislation for many years. Being a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat, he relentlessly moved North Carolina law toward the Left in just about every area from education to environment. He was also responsible for ramroding the state "education" lottery through the political process—and not without considerable controversy, as at least one pro-lottery lobbyist linked to Black has already been convicted of criminal monkey-business during that fight—after North Carolina had steadily resisted it on principle for many years. He was also implicated in shenanigans involving video poker.

He was a slick politician. A few terms ago, Republicans gained a two-vote majority in the North Carolina House, and for all intents and purposes, it appeared as if the tenure of Black as Speaker was over. But after a few weeks of public wrangling and backroom deals involving $50,000, a legislative job, and a representative switching parties, Black was suddenly back in the saddle, having arranged an unprecedented "co-speakership" with the leading Republican, and in the House it was business as usual. As new information comes out, it seems that this was generally how he operated when something he wanted done needed doing.

It is amazing to consider how he kept getting re-elected, when the general area of his district in southern Mecklenburg County has been fairly conservative in outlook. A look at the map of North Carolina House districts shows that his district 100 looks somewhat gerrymandered, especially in contrast to the districts around it. Whether it is gerrymandered or not to benefit him, his district returned him to Raleigh term after term because he brought home the bacon, as it were. Black was much-loved in the Charlotte area, particularly by the city's powers that be, because he routed to Charlotte-Mecklenburg state money and projects that would have likely gone to eastern North Carolina, as is traditional here. Somehow, he was a lock for re-election every time a vote came around.

All very interesting, right? As a quick chronicle of a corrupt political career, perhaps it is. However, the broader question that comes to mind is, "How many more Jim Blacks exist in the other forty-nine states and in the federal government?" Put another way, "Does Jim Black represent the way government works across the whole country?" Political corruption investigations and trials make the news often enough across the nation to persuade a person that crooked politicians outnumber honest ones. Or, perhaps we should not look at numbers but at the balance of power, and if that is the criterion, we can probably conclude that corrupt leaders hold more sway in this country than respectable ones. Call me cynical.

It starts at the top. With few exceptions, every U.S. President since at least John F. Kennedy has been embroiled in scandal and controversy. Two have been impeached. Several have had close aides or acquaintances serve time in jail. Even Ronald Reagan, hero of the conservative Right, was tainted by the Iran-Contra Affair. The present Chief Executive and his Vice President have had to face almost constant allegations of abuse of power in matters from detaining enemy combatants to firing federal prosecutors. So far, nothing criminal has been proven, but very few Americans think that their hands are completely clean. Many people believe, in fact, that no one can ascend that high in American politics without dirtying his or her hands.

Congress gets no better marks. Whether the charge is sexual impropriety, drunk driving, or bribery, Senators and Representatives are called on the carpet with stunning regularity. They openly trade pork projects costing millions or billions of dollars for votes on important legislation. It all begins with lying to the American people during their campaigns, and when they get to Congress, they follow the money. State and local politics are no different, as we have seen.

Government is a game of power and money, and frankly, it always has been. The corruption in politics that we see splashed on our television screens today is little different from what screamed in the headlines of yesteryear's newspapers. Corruption is a product of unbridled human nature, and it has marred every form of government—and possibly every government—in human history. Even the early New Testament church had its problems with fraud and bribery (see Acts 5 and 8)!

Whether corruption in government is increasing or not is hard to say. It certainly seems that it is, but such a perception might simply be a result of greater media coverage. Yet, it is a fact of human existence that we have to expect. It is the rule rather than the exception because the nature of humanity begins as a blank slate, but it is more often than not overwritten with the graffiti of the Three Big Pulls: the flesh, the world, and the Devil (Romans 8:7; I John 2:15-17; Revelation 12:9). A politician—and really, any person—trying to resist them alone fights a losing battle.

As Christians, what can we do? Within this system, very little or nothing. We have been called out of this world and made citizens of a perfect government (I Peter 2:9; Philippians 3:20). Our job now is, as the apostle Paul puts it, "to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called" (Ephesians 4:1). In other words, we have to scrub our slate clean of any corruption that still clings to it, and to conduct ourselves as spotless examples of Christian virtue. In the world to come, we are promised to be involved in the government of God (Revelation 5:10; 20:4). Then, glorified Christians will show the world how government can be done on the level.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Is China's Threat a Mirage?

The People's Republic of China has been in the news quite a lot lately, but not in the way it might wish to be discussed. While China's economy continues to churn out ten percent increases, as it expands its influence in areas as far away as Africa and South America, and as it persists in striking a belligerent—even bellicose—pose against its rivals in Asia and in the Pacific, many Americans seem to perceive China as little more than a producer and exporter of dangerous pet-food additives and lead-painted toys.

Because the War on Terror and the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars dominate the horizon, few people recall that before 9-11, the China threat was front and center. Chinese pilots were playing tag with American assets in the region, even forcing a U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries spy plane to land on Chinese soil. Pundits seriously discussed how soon it would take China to leap from major power to superpower status—especially the more liberal talking heads, who worried a great deal about perceived instability (read "American dominance") in a unipolar world. That kind of talk abruptly ceased with the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

Most of such talk has stopped, but not all of it. In the nearly six years since then, China has continued to expand economically, continued to arm, continued to flex its diplomatic muscles, and continued to plan and work toward some grandiose aims (such as floating a bona fide carrier group and putting a man on the moon). It possesses certain strengths that make American leaders nervous, such as its ability to damage the U.S. economy in terms of both trade and monetary policy. China also has North Korea on a leash, for now, and uses threats concerning Taiwan to its advantage. Without a doubt, the Chinese dragon still has teeth and claws.

But is it really a threat to U.S. power?

If she is to be believed, Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi does not think so. While touring some poverty-stricken areas of China with U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson recently, she flatly stated that, because of her nation's many internal problems, it is no threat to anyone, not economically, not politically, and not militarily—and certainly not to America. Evidently, she wanted the U.S. government to believe that, though it has the world's largest population (1.2 billion people), the third-largest economy, the world's third-ranked military, plenty of nuclear weapons, and a seat on the U.N Security Council, China should not be regarded as a rival, by any means.

Could there be something to her nationally self-disparaging comment? Perhaps. Strategic Forecasting's "Morning Intelligence Brief" of August 2, 2007, reports that, despite China's present booming condition, cracks in the foundation are already evident. China is aging, and it is projected to "get old before it gets rich," saddling the next generation with a monumental, and probably unsolvable, pension problem. It has an overabundance of unmarried males due to its socially devastating One-Child Policy. Perhaps worst of all, the rural countryside contains 800 million seething peasants, who have watched their urban, coastal neighbors develop and prosper at their expense.

Demography, as columnist Mark Steyn preaches, is destiny, and China's demography forecasts rough times ahead.

In addition, though the Han Chinese are the majority ethnic group, China is hardly monoethnic but consists of dozens of non-Chinese groups, for instance, Zhuang, Mongolians, Manchu, Koreans, Tibetans, and Uyghur. Being exempt from the One-Child Policy, ethnic populations are growing at about seven times the Han population. Most minorities have integrated into Chinese society, yet many Tibetans, Uyghur, and perhaps Manchurians, resent Chinese control and could try to break away. Some of these minorities are strong in areas far removed from Beijing, which keeps the central government on edge.

Regional geography is also a significant factor. Stratfor points out:

Strategically, China is in a box. Its land borders . . . are comprised of the emptiness of Siberia, the emptiness of Central Asia, the mountains of the Hindu Kush, the mountains of the Himalayas, and the jungles (and mountains) of Southeast Asia. All of these borders are just secure enough to limit China's ability to expand, but not quite so awesome (with the obvious exception of the Himalayas) as to provide China with airtight protection.

Geopolitically, China's situation is the worst of both worlds: The wastes and barriers it must cross deny it the ability to expand, yet those same wastes and barriers do not protect it sufficiently from outside pressures. Because it considers itself vulnerable from Russia, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines—militarily, economically, or philosophically—it is more concerned with holding onto what it has than reaching out for more. It is likely to be insular and protective of its borders for many years.

Finally, China must tread carefully in its dealings with foreign powers, and certainly those on whom it relies in terms of trade. Its economy is built on good relations with suppliers of natural resources and buyers of manufactured goods. If either of these pools dries up, the Chinese economy withers. In other words, if it picks a fight with the wrong opponent, it could effectively slit its own economic throat. In China, economic trouble inevitably leads to social unrest and the likely possibility of a harsh military crackdown.

Certainly, the "China threat" is real, but at the moment, it is nowhere near the stature of a superpower showdown. Under today's circumstances, if push came to shove with the U.S.—and American resolve held—China would likely back down quickly, especially if the Seventh Fleet made a show of force in the South China Sea. However, in tandem with other Asian nations, China would definitely be a force to be reckoned with. Should China enter a military bloc with regional neighbors, the China threat will reach the "alarming" level.