The success of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in placing “pork” into the budget deal to re-open the federal government raises constitutional issues involving the proper use of federal funds.
McConnell had $2.9 billion put into the budget deal to continue construction on the Olmsted Locks and Dam near Paducah, Ky. The project is critical to ensuring the flow of goods along the Ohio River waterway. The details of the project and the budget deal are explained in a Bloomberg article.
This is obviously a critical infrastructure project. Of course, the larger issue is, should the taxpayers even be paying for something like this? Although the Constitution provides no justification for projects such as this one, Congress has funded numerous infrastructure projects over the years. It’s along the lines of the project to deepen the Port of Savannah to allow larger ships into the port that would otherwise be directed to other ports. It’s an economic development project.
The question is not whether such projects necessary projects. The appropriate question is should the taxpayers be taxed by the federal government to pay for them? It appears consumers in the U.S. will pay one way or another, either through higher taxes, or by lost opportunities if regions affected by such project don’t get the funding that is needed. But the more appropriate way to finance something like this is through user fees paid by the shippers or businesses that will benefit from the projects.
In the case of the Kentucky project, shippers already pay something, and these costs will be passed on to consumers, either in this country or the country of destination for the products being shipped. If shippers’ fees rise, the additional costs will be added to the costs of the products being shipped. If the taxpayers pick up the tab, then the cost of the goods will fall: They would be subsidized by the taxpayers.
Why should the federal government even be involved in this kind of spending? Let the shippers pay or let local merchants pay. It’s really not a federal responsibility. If a state government wants to get involved in funding a project, that’s up to a state legislature.
Of course, in our current convoluted approach, everyone in Congress wants to fund these projects, so why shouldn’t a senator from Kentucky try to fund his project? And there you have the prevailing “take home the bacon” mentality. It needs to be stopped somehow, but that would necessitate a huge culture change in Congress. Perhaps it’s time we had a discussion about changing this culture. It’s been going on for quite a while.
Henry Clay, who served as congressman and U.S. senator in the 1800s, came up with what he called “The American System.” This included a regimen of “protective” tariffs—to protect native industries and finance the government—along with a host of “internal improvements,” including waterways projects, public roads, and eventually railroads. There was nothing in the Constitution to support projects like these, but Clay pointed to the provision in Article I, Section 8, that gave Congress the authority “to establish Post Offices and Post Roads,” which was a bit of a stretch when it came to justifying “internal improvements” as a constitutional use of federal funds.
One of the first bills that began to implement Clay’s vision was the General Survey Bill of 1824. It charged the Army Corps of Engineers with surveying projects that would benefit the entire country. President James Monroe grudgingly signed the bill even though he questioned the constitutionality of the measure.
There is history justifying these projects, and we appear to be stuck with them unless members of Congress suddenly become strict constructionists in interpreting the Constitution.
Already an attack ad has been produced by McConnell’s 2014 primary opponent in Kentucky, Matt Bevin. It criticizes McConnell for his role in obtaining the earmark in question. The Senate Conservatives fund has put up a post criticizing McConnell.
So, regardless of the “seaworthiness” of this earmark, and the separate question of whether it is even constitutional, it has already become a factor in McConnell’s re-election campaign.