Womack: Yes to earmarks, no to pork

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

I’ll try to write this carefully because a member of Congress has presented a nuanced position that can’t be explained in three words or less, is out of step with the prevailing mood of his party, and easily could be misconstrued. That kind of activity usually gets congressmen in trouble these days, which is why they so rarely engage in it.

Here goes: Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., is proposing bringing back pork barrel spending.

Oh, wait. I did a terrible job of presenting that carefully. I’m apparently still decompressing from the 60,000 TV ads that ran in the U.S. Senate race in Arkansas this cycle, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Let’s start over. What the state’s 3rd District congressman proposes is rethinking Congress’ self-imposed ban on earmarks, and maybe bringing them back with significant changes.

Earmarks are congressionally directed spending for specific projects. At their worst, they’re pork. They’re the “bridge to nowhere,” the $223 million Alaska bridge that would have served a tiny population until it was cancelled amidst controversy. In 2011, earmarks were banned by Congress in the name of good government, and they’ve been banned ever since.

Womack, who voted for the ban, says it was a mistake. Speaking to engineers in Springdale last month, he said the money is still being spent – but now by the executive branch. The Constitution says spending is Congress’ job, he said. He said that while some earmarks are wasteful, some can be quite useful. For example, no one knows his district’s highway needs better than he does.

There’s another argument for bringing back earmarks – they might help Congress actually get something done. In the past, earmarks were an important vote-trading tool that helped lawmakers coalesce into a majority. Yes, billions were wasted, but Congress actually functioned as a legislative body instead of the train wreck it’s become. Train wrecks such as the government shutdown cost far more than bridges.

When I mentioned that argument to Womack, he didn’t affirm it – either because he didn’t agree with it, or because he didn’t want to be associated with it. Just talking about earmarks is a big enough leap.

There are, of course, good reasons to continue the earmark ban. According to a recent Gallup Poll, only 14 percent of Americans approve of Congress, while 82 percent disapprove. That’s not exactly a popular mandate for more congressional power. Earmarks might make Congress no less a train wreck – just a more wasteful one. In the past, too many congressmen were judged not by how well they served the country but by how much bacon they brought home. Incumbents already have so much power that, this year, 96 percent of House members and 95 percent of senators who ran for re-election won, according to Politifact. Giving them more pork barrel power only increases the odds they’ll keep their jobs.

Womack is aware of the criticisms. He said earmarks should be reinstated only as part of a much more transparent process, including a cost-benefit analysis for each project. He said earmarks should not be inserted into major, must-pass legislation.

This isn’t the only battle that Womack, a 30-year National Guard veteran, has picked. For years he’s been arguing that Congress should let states and localities enforce their own sales tax regulations for online purchases. Legally, online consumers are supposed to calculate the sales tax for each purchase and then pay what’s required on their own initiative, but few do so.

Womack, a former mayor of Rogers, says the national ban places Main Street businesses at a disadvantage competing with tax-free online retailers. He also says his “Marketplace Fairness Act” isn’t a new tax – it just lets states and localities enforce their current ones.

But that’s another nuanced position, right? It’s so much easier to oppose anything that looks like a tax (while supporting spending increases). This week, House Speaker John Boehner announced Womack’s proposal was off the table for the rest of the year.

Credit to Womack for broaching a couple of difficult subjects. Whether or not they’re good policies, they’re risky politics. It takes a full column to explain Womack’s positions, right or wrong. Right or wrong, it only takes two words to summarize the arguments opponents can use against them: “tax” and “pork.” Which side do you think fits better into a 30-second ad?

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