Ethics & Public Policy Center

Improving Congressional Spending Habits

Published in Hudson Institute on April 30, 2007


When voters turned to new leadership in the 2006 midterm elections,a key reason was displeasure with the way Congress was handling the taxpayers’ money. A steady drumbeat of news stories documenting excessive and wasteful spending, as well as outright corruption, contributed to the growing sense that the Republican Congress had abandoned its conservative fiscal principles to stay in power. Experts and the general public alike now view the congressional spending process as lacking in basic integrity.

One reason for this distrust is the shadowy practice of earmarking, which rose last year to appalling levels. Earmarking enables lawmakers to designate funds for specific projects (and constituencies) rather than allocate funds to an agency for use at its discretion; it often takes place at the last minute and
behind closed doors. Perhaps the most notorious earmark of all time was the infamous “bridge to nowhere,” inserted in the 2005 transportation authorization bill, which would have connected a tiny Alaskan village to an even tinier Alaskan island — at a cost of $223 million to American taxpayers. Also contributing to voter distrust and displeasure is Congress’s funding of programs without regard to efficiency and results. Whereas most private sector businesses have had to improve productivity and eliminate unnecessary management layers in order to remain competitive in the global marketplace, the federal government continues to fund agencies without regard to performance. Congress simply passes the bill for these wasteful programs on to the American public.

The cost of congressional spending abuses is not to be measured simply in dollars. Earmarking and wasteful spending by Congress harm the very foundation of American democracy and civic life. By undermining trust in Congress as an institution, these practices leave voters cynical and distrustful of government. But they can be curtailed. A new approach to congressional spending reform — simple transparency based on reporting of funding decisions and other relevant data on the Internet — empowers ordinary citizens to oversee how elected officials spend taxpayers’ money and has already proved successful.

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