As a political junkie, I have learned over the years that politics are not a polite topic of conversation.
Actually, it’s an unpopular topic of discussion — especially among college students. People largely regard politicians as corrupt, self-interested and detached from the average American. And they’re right. American politics is diseased with corruption, crony-ism and self-ambition.
When I think too much about the brokenness of our political system, I begin to fall prey to apathy: the enemy of a representative democracy. Recently, I began to consider how Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative relates to our political system. When politicians choose corruption, they are choosing corruption for American society.
One way politicians have engendered corruption in American politics is through earmarks. Prior to Wednesday, politicians were able to take incentives from for-profit private contractors in the form of gifts and then in turn, reward those for-profit companies with no-bid contracts for construction and other jobs built into various bills passed through Congress. These no-bid contracts built into bills are called earmarks.
The Washington Post reports that the 2010 budget probably included over 1,000 of these earmarks for private businesses, amounting in billions of dollars. One infamous earmark was Alaska’s $400 million “bridge to nowhere” in 2005. According to the Washington Post and Reuters, earmark spending increased dramatically under the Republican rule from 1994-2006.
And due to the ethics scandal surrounding Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) for accepting trips from corporations, democrats had a major political incentive to pass an earmarks reform bill. Passing this earmarks reform bill places a lot of pressure on republicans now, who must decide whether they will elect to stop taking earmarks altogether in order to improve their image with the American public. Earmarks are nearly as unpopular with Americans as politics itself.
The new rules that passed Wednesday would not entirely restrict earmarks. In fact, Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” would still be a permissible earmark under the House’s new rules. Nevertheless, had these new rules been implemented before the last year, Reuters reports that about 10 percent of the earmarks would have been blocked.
I am not anti-earmarks. I think that states should be able to have federal funds for improvement projects. But those aren’t the earmarks targeted by these rules. These earmarks rules are geared toward ending politicians’ practices of garnishing perks from private corporations, and in turn providing these corporations with taxpayer dollars.
Without checks on these politicians and rules in place to restrict this behavior, corporations would have too much influence on American politics. People become tense when the government interferes with private business. When private business interferes with politics, is it just as egregious?
The fact that the House passed this resolution to end for-profit earmarks gives me hope — even if it was done under political pretenses. House democrats should be applauded for ending earmarks and cracking down on corruption. But it’s time for the Senate to make the same commitment. While the House, under Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) leadership, is making progress to change the perception of politics, the Senate is free to choose not to end for-profit earmarks.
I’m going to pay attention to who advocates ending earmarks and who remains silent. Jesus once said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” While Jesus is infinitely greater than politics and his statement is intended to encourage people to set their eyes on heaven, not on the material things of earth, his statement reveals a truth about political corruption. Paying attention to what politicians seem to value says much about where their interests lay. If they fail to end earmarks, perhaps their interest is in making a buck, not changing the status quo.