"This will probably get me in trouble."
My ears stood up and my hand tightened around my pencil as then GOP candidate and now Congressman-elect Tim Scott explained his approach to earmarks.
To be clear, Charleston's new representative is against the current system of piggy-backing hometown pet projects onto larger federal spending bills at the last minute. In the current system, Washington sends a check for that lint museum in your closet because your legislator slipped it into a bill funding national education and arts programs.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has bad-mouthed the practice for six years, and he's leading a charge in the Republican caucus to drive out earmarks all together. But he's not going to get what he wants. What will likely come out of this intraparty struggle is a concession that the spending is fine — it's transparency that's the problem.
"The current earmark system is dead on arrival when I get there," Scott says. But the nuance of that statement is most certainly "current." Scott is in the camp with most other Republicans who have soured on the old favor factory, but still see some value in having a factory.
"We need to take it out of the dark of night," Scott told us of the continued need for Congressional priorities. "I think if you look at the Constitution, the budget starts in the House of Representatives, not with the bureaucrats in Washington."
It's not that legislators shouldn't be able to send money home, projects just need to be vetted. "I will advocate for things that Kentucky needs through the committee process, where we deliberate on what are the most important projects," Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) told CNN last week. "That's not earmarking, and I won't earmark."
Yet, DeMint's push has been all about giving the bureaucrats the power. Charleston Port officials are pleading with DeMint to endorse a $400,000 federal study on dredging the Cooper River for larger ships. Since it would require an earmark, the senator has refused on principle. Instead, he's calling for Congress to abandon every port-related earmark and let the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set its own list of priorities.
In a Post and Courier column in September, DeMint said the Charleston Port perfectly illustrates the problem with earmarks that reward power over merit.
"Without fundamental and comprehensive reform, critical projects like the Port of Charleston deepening may never see the light of day," he wrote.
I'd like to humbly offer another local project that perfectly illustrates the problem with DeMint's merit-based pitch.
More than two years ago, the senator stood in the entrance of the Charleston International Airport to announce his support for a $30 million Federal Aviation Authority grant that would pay for a runway extension. Was he going to go after that funding? No. DeMint said he'd encourage the FAA to fund the project solely based on its national value.
"This is an example of trying to let the federal government work like it's supposed to," he told us at the time. To date, Charleston has yet to win that $30 million merit-based grant for a number of reasons, but we've got a kick-ass airport parking deck that Sen. Fritz Hollings funded with a $20 million earmark in a federal highway bill.
Fritz, Scott, and others realize that legislators can't bet on winning an objective argument, and the people back home don't want them to. They were elected to be glorified salesmen.
Consumer Reports recently rated Ford and Subaru models as the most reliable family cars, but that doesn't mean that people aren't buying Dodges or Chryslers. Out on Savannah Highway right now, there's a salesman suggesting there's more to that Dodge than some objective rating by a magazine. That's what they're paid to do, and that's what we pay our representatives in Washington to do.
As long as Tim Scott makes a solid pitch for harbor dredging, regardless of where it comes in the process, he'll avoid criticism here in Charleston. In the end, the only person he'll be in trouble with is DeMint.