North Carolina’s Zeb Vance (1830-1894) is a fascinating historical figure. Elected to Congress at 28, he rose to command his regiment in the Civil War, and was elected governor in 1862. Known for his debating skills and quick wit, he served as a United States Senator after reconstruction from 1878 until his death.
One colorful anecdote about Vance involves his attempt to secure a reclamation project for a river in his home state. A senator from Rhode Island objected, claiming the river was so insignificant he could “spit half way across it.” Vance responded that the senator “represented a state so insignificant that he could p--- half way across it.”
The Rhode Islander objected, stating that the senator from North Carolina was out of order. Vance replied “Damn right I’m out of order. If I was in order I could p--- all the way across it.”
That illustrates how Congress used to handle what we now call “earmarks.” With public debate over all of them. Vance and his New England colleague would be appalled at the present method.
There is nothing wrong with members of Congress seeking items for their home states and districts beyond requests from the administration. They aren’t potted plants nor onlookers and their constitutional role in the appropriations process obviously transcends simply voting aye or nay. What’s now wrong is the current gaming of the process by hiding those earmarks in general appropriations legislation.
Safe district pork masters like Raul Grijalva in District 7 have no shame and are relatively honest about announcing what they’re going for. Those from marginal districts like Gabby Giffords in District 8 are more circumspect, trying to look frugal while still grabbing the perceived goodies.
The process has degenerated into one of total subterfuge. Many conservatives wonder how many GOP types score well on their voting records by conservative groups while simultaneously grabbing not just their own pork but aiding everybody else get their’s.
The late Tom Anderson claimed politicians are a lot like cockroaches. It isn’t what they grab and carry off as much as what they get into and mess up. For Congressman X to get his earmarks, he needs to not only support every other member’s but not blow the whistle on the whole sick process.
Most damage is done in joint conference committees, where stuff all those noble supposed conservatives claim to have opposed gets slipped back in and sent on as part of a comprehensive package that few have read and even fewer are concerned about as long as they don’t get caught. The process is insidious.
While one cannot let the Democrats off the hook for their role in this, most Republicans have rolled over for it or even in it. The principal GOP culprits when they had control were pseudo-conservative former House Majority Leader Tom Delay and his supposed boss, Speaker Dennis Hastert, who played this game to the hilt. Current House leadership is no better, evidenced by their failure to allow Arizona’s anti-pork pride, Congressman Jeff Flake, to get anywhere near the Appropriations Committee. Their overwhelming rejection for a leadership post by Arizona’s other great earmark opponent, John Shadegg, also speaks volumes.
President Bush helped make the problem, failing to veto anything that came through Delay’s process. His current vetoes of Democrat wastefulness ring hollow and decrease GOP credibility even further.
Far more than Iraq or foreign policy, the GOP is paying for fiscal hypocrisy. Hopefully enough voters will note that John McCain was one of the few exceptions to it.
Listen to Emil Franzi and Tom Danehy on Inside Track, Saturdays 1-4 p.m. on KVOI 690 AM.