With the holidays upon us, lots of you are ready for the season’s sights, sounds and tastes, such as chops and ham. My mind is on pork of a different kind, the kind that for years boosted the daily lives and budgets of Kentuckians when it rained down from Washington, D.C.
With the gavel switching hands in Congress’ lower chamber, it looks like we just might see some good ol’ days again.
I know many of you are thinking, “How can he say that? Wasting all our hard-earned money on stupid pet projects in some place nobody has ever heard of ...”
First, let’s explore the oh-so-exciting recent history of the congressional earmark, a politician’s best friend.
Earmarks are line item appropriations added to federal legislation at the request of lawmakers. They’re used mostly to get those few extra votes you need to put a tough bill over the top or to reward good behavior and seniority.
Lots of emotions surround earmarks, but this system worked for a long time and the good ol’ commonwealth has taken more than our fair share (probably the only time we got more than our fair share) through the years, thanks in large part to one man, my congressman, Hal Rogers.
Now before you point me to some line item that citizens against government waste told you was crazy, like $2.5 million for potato research, let me talk to you about the good earmarks have done right here at home.
The Center for Rural Development in Somerset has brought countless resources to our small towns that otherwise would’ve been left to navigate some of the toughest economic challenges alone. The expansion of the Daniel Boone, er, Hal Rogers Parkway opened up broad swaths of our more mountainous region with better roads more suited to building a better economy.
To tackle the opioid epidemic there was Operation UNITE which provided officers, training, tools and funding to sheriffs’ offices that would’ve otherwise have been left to fight what amounts to a five-alarm fire with squirt guns. There was PRIDE, which brought funding to clean up years of litter and put an end to running raw sewage into the creeks and streams of the mountains. Conservation programs, law enforcement training, real jobs in Eastern Kentucky with real money to fight some of our biggest issues.
Then came 2010. As my party wrestled back the gavel from Nancy Pelosi after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, I couldn’t help but smile even wider because I knew my congressman was about to achieve his life’s goal, to be chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations. With him in arguably the most important chair in Washington and Sen. Mitch McConnell holding the reins of the upper chamber I just knew we were in line for some major changes in Appalachia.
Then came the neophytes raging against what they thought was wasteful spending. Fearing that the Tea Party was a much greater threat than it ever actually proved to be, Republicans banned earmarks to appease the most conservative among us.
The debt alarmists tell us that these wasteful projects are going to push our country past the brink. Well, let’s look at what happened under their purview.
Since 2010, Operation UNITE and PRIDE have become shells of their former selves. They may exist but the resources simply aren’t there for them to play the role they once did. Perry County is now the opioid capital of the country with some of the highest addiction rates and lowest life expectancies on record, but as our justice system innovates with things like drug court to help claw ourselves out of the hole, their budgets are cut and the target moves yet again.
This isn’t just a problem in the mountains. Look at Tim’s Law which could really do a lot to handle the rampant mental illness that’s evident all over Lexington’s downtown but that can’t even go into full effect until adequate funding is found. Bet you could use an earmark for that, huh? Maybe a nice federal grant to pay for those metal detectors in the high school and mental health professionals to help our kids instead of a bigger property tax bill?
I’m not saying to run wild with earmarks but each district does have legitimate tangible needs that the budgeting process makes too cumbersome (if not impossible) to sufficiently meet by other means. Earmarks are another tool for legislators to really make a difference for all of us here at home.
Will it take us off the edge of a fiscal cliff? No. It was common practice for decades prior to 2010, and we saw some of the best fiscal days of the modern age in the 1990’s – did they destroy us then?
The costs faced every day in a society that’s been left to handle it’s problems alone keep racking up, but those aren’t the government’s bills. They’re yours.
Derek Jorge Campbell is an attorney, entrepreneur and lobbyist based in central & eastern Kentucky. Reach him firstname.lastname@example.org.