Congressional earmarks: Some things never change

ARLINGTON, Va. — ARLINGTON, Va. -- The French journalist and novelist Alphonse Karr is credited with saying, "The more things change, the more they remain the same." Though Karr lived in the 19th century, his insight could well apply to the United States Congress in the 20th and 21st centuries, especially when it comes to spending, the last truly bipartisan and unchanging indulgence of both parties.

Following the election that will put them in the majority come January, Democratic leaders announced that they had taken the pledge. Things would be different, they said. Democrats would be far more ethical than Republicans. In his response to President Bush's radio address Saturday, soon-to-be House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said, "We will - and we must - change the way things are done in Washington." If that sort of talk sounds familiar, it should. It is what Republicans said prior to, and after, the 1994 election.


It all sounds so noble, even righteous, but the results are the same: Members of Congress don't change Washington; Washington changes them.

Even before the Democrats become the majority in Congress, there are signs that little of importance will change. New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick recently wrote a story in which he quotes Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, on "earmark reform." Mr. Inouye said, "I don't see any monumental changes." Mr. Inouye will take the gavel from the current chairman of the defense appropriations sub committee, Sen. Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska. The two have what Mr. Kirkpatrick calls an "unusual bipartisan camaraderie while divvying up projects."


They are not alone. Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, indicates she, too, will jump on the gravy train because "what is good for the goose is good for the gander." So much for Democrats' commitment to reform.

Democratic leaders have promised to require that earmarks bear the name of the member who proposes them. Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, who has been tireless in his futile attempts to reform the earmark system, told the Times, "Transparency would be enough if we had any shame, if you were embarrassed to get an earmark for the National Wild Turkey Federation." But, said Mr. Flake, "Republicans and Democrats have shown that there is no longer any embarrassment."

Tom Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, has noted, "There are three parties in Washington: Democrats, Republicans and appropriators." The surest sign of eternal life in Washington is a government program. Recall "the bridge to nowhere." Congress last year earmarked $230 million to build a bridge that would connect Gravina Island, Alaska (population 50), to the town of Ketchikan. After a public outcry and a temper tantrum by Mr. Stevens, Congress removed the earmark instructions and allowed Alaska authorities to spend the money as they wish.

A lousy idea, however, does not mean loss of an appropriation. Outgoing Alaska Gov. Frank H. Murkowski, a Republican, is still trying to keep the project alive.

It's difficult to take either party seriously when it repeatedly promises reform but does little or nothing. In an interview with the Honolulu Advertiser the day after the election, Senator Inouye said he had "a chat with Senator Stevens before the election. We pledged to each other that no matter what happens, we will continue with our tested system of bipartisanship, and we've been doing this for the past 25 years, and it's worked."

It's worked for them, perhaps, but it hasn't worked for those who pay for the pork. Nothing changes, and nothing will change unless there are more and frequent outcries by outraged taxpayers.

Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is