Remember the bridge to nowhere? Of course you do. In 2005, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens inserted the $320 million project connecting a tiny Alaska town to an island with fifty inhabitants into a transportation bill and nearly instantly it ascended into the rarified company of $640 Pentagon toilets as an iconic image of government pork at its worst. The bridge became a symbol of the venality of a Republican Congress that had overseen an almost four-fold increase in earmarks between 1994 and 2005, and it provided a rare moment of bi-partisan unity as both the liberal and conservative blogs rushed to cry foul.
Now that Democrats control Congress, reforming out-of-control earmarks is a top priority. Indeed, in late December, incoming House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey and his Senate counterpart Robert Byrd announced they wouldn’t be funding their colleagues’ pet projects left on the table by the previous Republican Congress. But while appropriations earmarks are receiving justifiable attention, another side of the story has gone largely ignored: targeted tax breaks that function almost exactly like earmarks. In 2005, the total cost of appropriations pork projects was somewhere around $64 billion, while narrowly targeted tax expenditures cost, in the estimation of tax expert Leonard Burman of the Urban Institute somewhere between $100 billion to $200 billion. “Everything you can find on the spending side, you can find in the tax code,” says Burman. If the Democrats are going to reform the earmark system they’ve got to look at both sides of the ledger.
It’s important to keep earmarks of any kind in perspective. If you read blogs and listen to the elected officials, you would think that earmarks are responsible for the current deficit. They’re not. The $64 billion appropriated for pet Congressional projects is about the cost of eight months of the Iraq occupation. Outrage from libertarians and so-called fiscal conservatives aside, the problem with earmarks and pork isn’t so much the total cost as the fact that the pork bypasses the normal budget process, whereby projects are vetted for merit, and the potential for abuse. If lawmakers can anonymously slip millions of dollars of taxpayer money for a pet project, as they have done of late, there’s little to stop them from providing a neat quid-pro-quo service, as convicted felon and former congressman Duke Cunningham did with his defense contractor benefactors. But if the issue is corruption, the more buried the quo, the less likely the quid will raise red flags. It’s hard to hide a $300 million bridge. It’s a lot easier to hide a $300 million tax break. And whereas even small community groups can hope to get some local pork for a Social Security office or an after-school center those with the most incentive and ability to secure tax earmarks are those with the largest tax liabilities and enough tax attorneys to understand what’s at stake in the code: big corporations and industry trade groups.