The Washington Post has proven itself useful. Earlier this week, the paper shone a bright light on almost three dozen Congressmen who have directed taxpayer money into projects that will directly impact their own property:
Thirty-three members of Congress have directed more than $300 million in earmarks and other spending provisions to dozens of public projects that are next to or within about two miles of the lawmakers own property, according to a Washington Post investigation.
Examples of the projects are stunning:
A U.S. senator from Alabama directed more than $100 million in federal earmarks to renovate downtown Tuscaloosa near his own commercial office building. A congressman from Georgia secured $6.3 million in taxpayer funds to replenish the beach about 900 feet from his island vacation cottage. A representative from Michigan earmarked $486,000 to add a bike lane to a bridge within walking distance of her home.
This is, we are informed, both legal and undisclosed, under the rules Congress has written for itself.
It is a basic conservative principle that no man should be judge and jury in his own cause. Rules governing one’s behavior should not be self-generated: obviously, we all have a natural bias in favor of our own interests. And when it comes to the public’s money, which belongs to no one in particular, even stalwarts like Calvin Coolidge conceded that the urge to bestow it upon someone is overwhelming.
Congressmen thus ask themselves: Why not me? With no one to hold them accountable and no rules prohibiting it, is it really any surprise that Congressmen would abuse their privileges this way? After all, these are already people who are naturally allured by the idea of power. People who desperately want to wield power — that is: most politicians — are generally not prime candidates for doing so.
Unfortunately, activity such as this is more of a symptom than a cause of our decaying political system. As the Post correctly points out:
Earmarks are a fraction of the federal budget, and the numbers uncovered by The Post are relatively small in the scheme of the overall Congress, but the behavior by lawmakers from both parties points to a larger issue at a time when confidence in Capitol Hill is at an all-time low.
The sheer audacity of the behavior of Congressmen is striking — but, earmark hawks’ outrage aside, the amount of money wasted pales in comparison to the unsustainable mountain of entitlements, labyrinthine bureaucracy, and litany of government-sector benefits lavished on its workers. Congress isn’t concerned about that, either. It doesn’t care at all about the decrepit manner in which it operates.
The entire system is an illusion: Congress passes and takes credit for bills that it doesn’t write and hasn’t read, then promises us that we’ll find out what’s in them once they’re law. But while the system is illusory, the perks are not: individual members quickly find out that having the title of Congressman can be a lucrative enterprise. That Congressmen funnel funds into their personal projects can hardly be surprising, given that we already knew about the rampant insider-trading amongst them. Ex-Congressmen and senators — even just one-term losers — rake in the big bucks through lobbying and consulting after leaving the legislature. Even those who position themselves as relentlessly principled often aren’t: Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann, for instance, suck up a considerable amount of earmark money. (Given what we know, is that really so shocking? It’s a sad sign of the times when people are shocked by good behavior.)
The heart of the problem is not merely earmarks, but our utterly deteriorated civic life: our legislators no longer see themselves as citizens, but as rulers. Most would-be system-cleaners have either been assimilated or have been marginalized. The siren song of power, prestige, and riches prove too strong for most people to resist. We must dismantle the existing incentives to corruption or watch our system collapse upon itself.