Dick Durbin’s Absurd Campaign to Increase Wasteful Spending

Senator Dick Durbin is campaigning to get a fourth term in Congress. On April 21, The Huffington Post‘s Sam Stein reported that “[t]he Illinois Democrat made the case for restoring the ability of Congress to add pet projects to large bills in [an] appearance before a union crowd last week.”

While it’s no secret that the Democratic Party has a passionate desire for earmarks, the revival of an issue that came to a head in 2011 is a bit… random. Let’s see what Durbin had to say:

“I think that what we need to do is have the Obama administration say, ‘We are looking for local impact, local input on projects and we will give great weight or at least weight to these recommendations.’ And I think that only makes sense. Because, to think that somebody sitting at a desk in Washington, D.C., can appreciate that opportunity down in the Metro East area — I’m not sure they could,” Durbin said, according to a recording of his remarks provided by his office to The Huffington Post.

“It was a tea party reform,” Durbin added. “They came in and eliminated it and what they did is take the glue out of a federal transportation bill. That was the glue that held everybody together: Democrats and Republicans working for a common goal. There were abuses for sure, and those abuses can be policed and those abuses can be eliminated with more transparency start to finish.

(Good luck with that “transparency” in this administration.)

That “Tea Party reform” that Durbin referred to is the earmark ban that the House Republican conference approved after the 2010 midterms – a promise that Politifact rates as “kept.” Of course, Durbin neglected to mention that President Obama approved the measure in his 2011 State of the Union, saying that he would veto spending bills that included such earmarks. And that the Senate came on board the ban as well (with a lot of arm-twisting).

Nonetheless, I suppose it’s easier for Durbin to blame the Tea Party boogeyman. Old habits die hard.

I’m not sure where Durbin is coming from with this notion that earmarks are an example of “Democrats and Republicans working for a common goal,” but I’ll attempt an interpretation. Durbin’s comment makes sense in a context where that “common goal” refers to passing legislation, e.g., earmarks are used as leverage to obtain concessions and compromises. I will confess that House of Cards influenced this evaluation. Even if this is what Durbin is referring to, granting him the following concessions do not affect the issue’s core:

  • The idea that earmarks are leverage is a valid point. “Build me a bridge and I’ll give you a vote.” “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” We are merely human, selfish, and enticed by barters, gifts, and the competitive edge those things give us. Then again, Durbin openly denounced free enterprise – an economic philosophy that relies on essentially the same model of human nature.
  • It’s impossible to disagree with Durbin that Congressmen know their constituents’ needs better than the Executive does. It’s so simple that it’s basically a non sequitur.

Neither concession overrides the fact that Durbin is calling for rollbacks on measures to achieve some semblance of fiscal sanity. While earmarks may be a handy method for gaining leverage, personalized earmarks don’t belong in the surfeit of irrelevant bills coming in and out of the Legislature.

Durbin appears to be very concerned about transportation funding. Well, Dick, here’s the deal: federal funds for transportation projects belong in transportation bills. They should not be barnacles attached to unrelated bills, buried between the lines where they don’t come into consideration on the floor. Setting aside the question of whether the federal government should be funding such projects in the first place, these appropriations belong in a setting where their individual merits are considered.

While Durbin couches his crusade in nice terms (“the glue that held everybody together”), calling for earmarks is nothing short of imploring the Legislature to turn a blind eye to wasteful spending and cronyism. The Democrats who support him tacitly approve continuing these toxic trends as well.

Talk about “more of the same.”