Republicans are discussing within their party (and in the press) how best to address the problem of earmarks. Earmarks are those gifts to special interests and districts that are easy to ridicule when taken in isolation (think of the infamous bridge to nowhere) but can be hard to find in the thousands of pages of bills that carry them. They carry a taint of special interests and smoke-filled rooms.
They are also an easy target. It is not the size of the earmarks that is the problem; rather, it is the leverage of little trades for power that is the problem. Earmarks are sometimes described as a feedback system where Representative A buys Representative B using taxpayers' money. Representative B then reciprocates by buying Representative A, also using taxpayers' money. And each then goes home and brags to the voters that he brought home the bacon for the district -- having brought that bacon back to the very people who sent it, after a little laundering and after skimming off some for administrative overhead.
While earmarks are small and easily targeted, the U.S. tax code itself is a veritable pork barrel of special interests getting special treatment, paid for courtesy of the same people (you, the taxpayer). Weighing in at perhaps 33,000 pages of IRS regulations reinforced and guided by perhaps 3,400 pages of government code as written by Congress, the rules are a byzantine labyrinth of special treats.
The very fact that two honest people from two sides of the aisle can come to the table with assurances from their respective staffs that the codes are in fact fair (or unfair) is a strong indicator that the codes are ipso facto not fair. The first step in any dialogue ought to include a dramatic simplification of the tax code. Remove all those deductions, and then talk about how to set the brackets and tax rates to make the tax codes appropriately progressive.
The Tea Party challenges the Republicans to return to their principles. The exact nature of those principles is itself a matter of some debate within the party. It is both interesting and instructive to watch as we struggle with simple bumper-sticker statements of principles when those principles, if blindly applied, will gore some of our own sacred oxen.
A popular idea, often misattributed to Alexander Tytler, has at its heart a self-evident truth: Democracies fall because of loose fiscal policy brought on by the voters' granting themselves benefits without being taxed appropriately to those benefits.
This would appear to be a reasonable worry in a democracy, and it may have been this concern that drove the original Constitution to establish a republic over a democracy. Of course, over time we have restructured that government to what we have today, which is sometimes referred to as a representative democracy, wherein elected officials are sometimes thought to be voting simply as stand-ins for the people who elect them. This view is in opposition to the concept of electing officials to represent us as statespeople.
Earmarks (and the tax code) may be symptoms of a system that is falling into the trap outlined above, the trap that democracies set for voters who vote their own interests at the expense of "the other taxpayer." But earmarks are most insidious for their ability to be leveraged to change other, more important policies. We should not think that we have won an important victory just because we have elected new representation with a mandate to put the earmarks behind us.
Bruce W. Morlan works as a mathematician conducting research into medical practice and policy. He is an elected Township Supervisor, member of two planning commissions, and a volunteer mediator for Rice County Dispute Resolution Program. He conducts periodic political salons at a local pub and is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.