Paul Ryan: Prioritizing Pork

By Congressman Paul Ryan

In Racine County, families and local organizations are being forced to tighten their belts and make tough budgetary decisions. In Washington, Congress just sent a $410 billion spending bill to the President’s desk, with $7.7 billion of the bill taking the form of over 8,500 earmarks. With our economy demanding responsible governance, Congress has once again prioritized pork over leadership.

This spending package represents a collection of appropriations bills rolled into one “omnibus” bill to keep the federal government funded for the remainder of this fiscal year. The nearly half-trillion dollar package comes in the wake of a trillion dollar “stimulus” spending bill, and weeks before Congress votes on a $3.9 trillion budget for FY2010, which includes massive tax hikes – on all Americans – in the midst of a deepening recession. In addition to this, Speaker Pelosi recently stated that a second stimulus bill may be needed. The Federal government is already facing a $1.8 trillion budget deficit this year, with more funds being called for to stabilize a financial system that remains in peril.

This onslaught of new spending exacerbates our most serious fiscal challenge: the explosion of entitlement spending. Driven by out-of-control health care costs and the retirement of the baby boomers, our nation’s critical health and retirement social insurance programs – namely Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – will literally grow themselves into extinction. Absent comprehensive reform, we will be buried under the crushing burden of $56 trillion in unfunded liabilities – promises the federal government knows it can’t keep.

I appreciate that entitlement reform is a contentious issue and poses challenges for Washington’s risk-adverse politicians. While I remain the only member of Congress with a proposal that directly tackles this challenge (“A Roadmap for America’s Future” – www.americanroadmap.org), I acknowledge that Congress must first regain the trust of the taxpayer in order to credibly tackle our entitlement crisis. Curbing wasteful spending and the broken earmark process would be a great first step.

As mentioned above, the “omnibus” spending bill that President Obama signed into law today contains billions of dollars of pork-barrel spending. If you take the time to pour through the thousands of earmarks buried in this bill, you’ll find plenty that you – as a taxpayer – would like to know exactly what you are paying for: $200,000 for tattoo removal in Southern California; $250,000 to restore a tugboat owned by the wealthy DuPont family; $1.7 million dollars for swine odor research; and the list goes on.

Much attention is given to the embarrassing earmarks – and rightfully so. Yet, more troubling than these egregious examples of waste is the corruptibility of the process. Earmarks aren’t inherently problematic, but when you have former members of Congress in jail for selling earmarks, there's something seriously wrong with the process.

While former elected officials sit in jail as a result of past earmarks, the omnibus bill demonstrates that Congress still hasn’t learned its lesson. This bill was crafted with the help of the infamous PMA Group, a lobbying outfit with a reputation for steering pork to its clients and campaign contributions to Congress. The FBI recently raided the PMA Group offices, digging for answers to charges that the PMA Group circumvented campaign finance laws to reward a number of Congressional appropriators. Despite this ongoing investigation and an amendment in the Senate to strike their earmarks, PMA Group clients managed to secure 13 earmarks in the omnibus bill with a majority vote in the Senate and help from their friends in Congress.

To root out the waste and corruption that fills the halls of Congress, I have teamed up again with Wisconsin Senator and fellow Janesville native Russ Feingold on an issue where we find common ground. Senator Feingold and I, along with Senator John McCain, recently unveiled the Congressional Accountability and Line-Item Veto Act to give the President the ability to embarrass the pork out of spending bills.

Under our legislation, the President can send specific earmarks tucked into larger spending bills back to Congress. Congress would then be required to vote on whether or not these earmarks should become law, bringing sunshine and transparency to the process. Many earmarks are justified, but under our broken system, Members of Congress do not have to justify them. The line-item veto will allow the sponsors of an earmark to actually defend its merits before the project receives taxpayer dollars.

Distinct from a line-item veto that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1998, this bill preserves the power of the purse within the legislative body, as the Constitution makes clear. Spending decisions do not take effect without both the House and Senate voting to approve the President's recessions. If either chamber votes against a veto package by a simple majority, it will not be enacted. That's fundamentally different from last decade’s line-item veto, which did not require congressional approval for the president's veto to take effect and was thus declared unconstitutional.

This is not a Democratic or Republican issue – it is a good government issue. I am proud to work across the aisle with Senator Feingold to combat wasteful spending. I am hopeful that by bringing Wisconsin’s reputation of reform to Washington, we can make some substantial progress in earning back the trust of the taxpayer.

If we can’t get this issue right, how are we ever going to tackle the more pressing challenges we now face?

Congressman Paul Ryan serves Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District. To contact him by phone in Washington, D.C., call (202) 225-3031. Or visit Paul Ryan at www.house.gov/ryan

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