Several people in the media and in Idaho's political elite have taken me to task for my decision to refuse participation in the earmark process for 2009. They view this as a symbolic gesture, one not worth the money Idaho might receive if I had decided to utilize a system the vast majority of Idahoans and of Americans agree is flawed.
My response is that I am not a career politician who measures success by the dollars of pork I bring home to my district. I am a businessman who is working in Congress to make this country a better place for my children and my grandchildren, and for the state I love. That means doing what is right, and that's why I am standing firm against earmarks.
Our country is in trouble. Unemployment is climbing, the economy is stagnant, and our financial system is still not functioning properly. The recovery will be painful, and the choices we have made over the last six months to spend trillions of dollars we have to borrow from the Chinese and other foreigners on bailouts and stimulus have assured that the pain will be felt by future generations long after this recession is over. We are borrowing astonishing amounts of money for projects and programs which will do very little to create jobs in the short term. And there is no plan to pay it back. Adding onto this year's record deficit another $50 billion or $60 billion of special-interest earmarks just makes the problem that much worse.
Neither party has a real path to bring down the deficit and ultimately lead us to the balanced budgets Americans demand. We can only do that if government makes the same kinds of sacrifices Americans now make every day. If ever there was a time to take a stand and demand changes to a system that is broken, that time is now.
For us to truly and permanently cut the amount that government spends, we must reform the way the spending happens. It's not unlike someone whose credit cards are maxed out, while carrying a large car payment and living in a home he cannot afford. That first step—cutting up the credit cards—is crucial.
So it is with ending earmarks. We must reduce spending, but we must also reform the system so all government spending is subject to public scrutiny and debate instead of decisions being made by powerful politicians in hidden back rooms.
In refusing to utilize the earmark system this year, I join with leaders from both parties. The top Republican in the House, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, refuses earmarks. And Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Democrat and close ally of the president, refuses them, too. Unfortunately, far too few of my colleagues in the House of Representatives have chosen to join these pioneers for fiscal reform.
Like them, I worked to pass a complete ban of earmarks. When that failed, I called for deeper reforms than the superficial ones which ultimately passed. Those reforms require members to publicly disclose which earmark requests they will submit. That is a step toward opening up the process, but it does not inject any accountability.
The point is not to shine a light on requests—it is to shine a light on the decisions. The dirty little secret about the earmark system is that when those doors close and the "open and accountable" lists of requests are scrutinized, the real horse trading begins.
So in the end, I believe quite firmly that my decision to forgo earmarks for at least this year will ultimately help Idaho, not hurt it. For those concerned about my decision, I make these three promises:
First, I pledge to work directly with those who will put Idahoans back to work with focused projects to help local communities, by assisting them with applying for competitive, open grants through a process subject to public scrutiny.
Second, I pledge to continue seeking earmark reforms while voting against spending I do not believe is in the best interests—short term or long term—of Idaho or America.
And third, I pledge to listen, learn and evaluate my decision over the coming year while fighting in every way I can to get this economy moving again so we can restore fiscal discipline and balance the budget.
Rep. Walt Minnick represents Idaho's First Congressional District.