Legislative ‘Christmas trees’ are really earmarks

Earmarks epitomize to many Americans the corrupt culture that has brought Congress to its lowest level of public esteem in modern history.

But professional politicians in both parties are now treating the country to a vivid demonstration of an equally disreputable illustration of what is wrong with Washington — turning the tax-cut compromise between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans into a “Christmas tree.” That’s what happens when the politicians agree on a broad course of action (the tax-cut compromise, which is the Christmas tree), then use it as a vehicle for doing other things (the ornaments). The ornaments often have nothing whatsoever to do with the tree and frequently are used to buy votes of senators and representatives who supported the original purpose without any inducements.

Vice President Joe Biden reportedly told House Democrats on Wednesday that the deal cut by Obama, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker-to-be John Boehner was a “take it or leave it” proposition.

But even before Biden’s tumultuous appearance among House Democrats, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, was crowing to reporters back home that the compromise would include an expensive ornament — the use of tax credits to extend subsidies for ethanol and biodiesel fuels, neither of which has anything to do with income tax rates for individuals. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also reportedly dangled these subsidies, which encourage corn farmers to grow more corn, to ensure the vote of Sen. Tom Harkin, Grassley’s Democratic colleague from Iowa.

The list of ornaments being hung on the tax-cut Christmas tree grew steadily throughout the week. Reid appears to have gained votes from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., by agreeing to support continuation of federal subsidies for renewable energy sources that aren’t able to compete in an open market with fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas. It became obvious that the backroom wheeling and dealing would continue when at the end of the week Obama said, “My sense is there are going to be discussions between both House and Senate leadership about all the final elements of the package. Keep in mind we didn’t actually write a bill.”

Sooner or later, Washington’s politicians must figure out that most Americans have had it with business-as-usual government in which everybody scratches everybody else’s back, all at the expense of the taxpayers. The Hill’s favor mart produces 2,000-page legislative monstrosities that few lawmakers read or understand before they vote on them. Republicans should insist that extending the Bush tax-cuts compromise involve nothing more than a simple legislative declaration that the currently authorized rates will remain in force until a date certain, as will unemployment benefits. 

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