Mark Twain on Earmarks

My guess is that your Internet mailbox is like mine; that it is filled most mornings with collections of jokes and “words of wisdom” sent by friends and acquaintances. And I bet your reaction is also like mine; that you glance quickly through most of the material, only occasionally pausing to note something genuinely funny or worthwhile. I recently received an item that was both funny and worthwhile. It was entitled “Government Truisms.”

Ironically, it popped up in my mailbox in mid-June, in the very same week that a Wall Street Journal editorial focused on a federal investigation into the fiscal shenanigans of the congressional Republicans, especially California representative Jerry Lewis. One purpose of the probe, according to the Journal, is to determine whether “Mr. Lewis steered hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarked projects to the clients of his friend, campaign contributor and former House colleague Bill Lowery. One of Mr. Lowery's clients is an unindicted co-conspirator in the bribery scandal that sent former Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham to jail for approving earmarks to defense contractors in exchange for personal gifts.

“The lobbying firm's defense clients receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts from Appropriations. Two of the top rainmakers at Mr. Lowery's firm have been former Appropriations staffers who worked for Mr. Lewis. Last week the Los Angeles Times reported that Mr. Lowery's firm paid one of those staffers, Jeffrey Shockey, nearly $2 million when he left the firm and returned to Appropriations when Mr. Lewis became Chairman in 2005. Roll Call newspaper also reported last week that Mr. Shockey's former lobbying firm received more than $1 million in higher fees from government contractors shortly after he returned to Capitol Hill.”

The Journal notes that in early June the “House was busily approving a $68 billion Treasury, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill stuffed with more than 1,500 new earmarks at a cost of some $900 million. They include $500,000 for a scenic trail in Monterey, California; $1.5 million for the William Faulkner Museum in Oxford, Mississippi; $500,000 for a swimming pool in Columbus, Ohio; and $500,000 for an athletic facility in Yucaipa, California. Several of these projects, including the athletic facility, have been promoted by Bill Lowery's lobbying firm — the very firm in the middle of the Jerry Lewis probe.”

The Journal states the obvious: “If Republicans aren't spooked by the Lewis investigation, they should be. Here is one of their major barons under investigation for the kind of high-handed spending favoritism that voters detest about Washington. Republicans won the House in 1994 in part because the House Bank and Post Office scandals revealed the arrogance of a Democratic majority that believed it could do anything and voters would never send them packing. If Republicans don't change their behavior, earmarking could be the story that does the same for them this year.”

Well, do you think the voters will “throw the bums out”? Maybe. Maybe not. This is where the message of “Government Truisms” comes into play. It is not as if government waste and corruption is something new. Consider the following:

“A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.” —George Bernard Shaw

“A liberal is someone who feels a great debt to his fellow man… which debt he proposes to pay off with your money.” —G. Gordon Liddy

“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” —James Bovard

“Foreign aid might be defined as a transfer of money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.” —Douglas Casey

“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” —P.J. O'Rourke

“Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”

—Frederic Bastiat

“I contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.” —Winston Churchill

“I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” —Will Rogers

“If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it's free!” —P.J. O'Rourke

“In general, the art of government consists of taking as much money as possible from one party of the citizens to give to the other.” —Voltaire

“No man's life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” —Mark Twain

“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of the blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.” —Winston Churchill

“The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin.” —Mark Twain.

“There is no distinctly native American criminal class… save Congress.” —Mark Twain

“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem…. [I]f no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” —Ronald Reagan

Voltaire wrote in the 18th century, Bastiat and Twain in the 19th, Churchill, Shaw, Rogers and Reagan in the 20th. The other writers are our contemporaries. But the message is the same: Often enough to matter, the government is both inefficient and corrupt. You would think we would have learned that by now.

The question is whether there will ever be a final straw that convinces mankind no longer to entrust government with the power to solve social problems beyond its demonstrated capacities. Will people get the point if we keep illustrating it with insights such as those found in “Government Truisms”? Should that be our goal? To hammer away in the hope of pointing out the failures of the tax-and-spend policies that liberal Democrats argue are the keys to social justice?

I can see where a cynic might say, “Why bother?” After all, the modern critics are making the same point about government corruption and inefficiency that vexed Mark Twain over a hundred years ago. It could be that a certain level of corruption is inevitable when big money is spent by government agencies. I sometimes suspect that the entire national infrastructure — the roads and bridges, canals and tunnels and national monuments that we point to with pride — was constructed through a process riddled with bribes to public officials and union kickbacks to organized crime.

That, at any rate, is the contention of Thomas Kelly, a former New York construction worker and union official turned novelist. Empire Rising, a novel describing the construction of the Empire State Building, will give you a picture of how the game is played. If Kelly is only partially right, union leaders and politicians on the take and organized crime kickbacks are the lubricants of most of our public works projects, and coordinating them successfully is as much a part of the entrepreneur’s responsibility as organizing raw materials and capital.

It is true: corrupt politicians will always be with us; we will never catch them all. But that does not mean we should shrug and look the other way. Let’s keep things in perspective. Graft is graft. Influence peddling is influence peddling. As bad as things are now, they would be worse if the country had not seen people like Duke Cunningham and Dan Rostenkowski getting caught with their hands in the cookie jar and sent off to federal prison. Making clear that such characters exist in government will help dispel the illusions the voters may have about the competency and high-mindedness of our public officials. We don’t want the voters to think that every politician is corrupt and incompetent. But we do want them to be aware that a good number of them are both when the time comes to vote on expanding the size and scope of the federal government.

Pope Pius XI taught the principle of subsidiarity in Quadragesimo Anno, which holds that “just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.” One of the things Pius XI was warning about was putting wheeler-dealer congressmen too close to the honey pot. That’s one thing the popes and Mark Twain would agree about.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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