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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Earmarking, a Proud Tradition

Monday night President Bush announced his intention to rein in the earmarking of federal funds by lawmakers who want to channel taxpayer dollars to their own pet projects. This vision runs against the grain not only of imperfect human nature but also of American history: almost from the start, political power was viewed by office holders primarily as the power to spend the public purse. The Rev. Alfred Brunson (1793-1882) discovered this when he came to Madison in the winter of 1840-1841 to serve in the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature.

"At that time," he recalled, "[Wisconsin] being a Territory, Congress paid the expenses of the government, and the spirit of the majority of the legislature was to create as many offices as possible, so as to give a place to partisan favorites and friends to pay them for electioneering, and to secure their votes at future elections; also to get as much money as possible out of 'Uncle Sam' to circulate in the country. I objected to this course, on the ground of needless expense, and that it was constituting a precedent for our future state that would be a burden when we had to foot the bills ourselves. But when the vote was taken, I found myself in a slim minority. ... This policy was the beginning of that system which was afterwards known as the 'Forty Thieves,' who ruled the Territory and the State for years, on the principle 'to the victor belong the spoils.'

"Bad as this legislature was in this and some other respects," Brunson continued, "the citizens of the place said it was a great improvement upon its predecessors. Whether this was a fact or a mere compliment of flattery, I had no means of knowing. The next session, composed chiefly of the same men, was like unto the other.

"Political hobbies were mounted and rode at John Gilpin speed. Log rolling was the order of the day. You help me and I will help you, was the ruling spirit of that body. Personal or party interests were the motive power with a majority, and but few seemed to inquire whether a proposed measure was in itself right or wrong, but whether it would be for the interest of the party himself or his constituents; and the history of legislation in both the Territory and State has not exhibited as much improvement in these respects as is desirable."

Not until the 20th century dawned would such corruption be curtailed, and then only intermittently. Like every responsible citizen, we wish for a clean and effective government filled with incumbents who share Rev. Brunson's ethical principles. But so long as decision-makers are mere mortals driven largely by greed, ambition, fear, and delusion like the rest of us, the chances for that seem slim.

:: Posted in Curiosities on January 28, 2008

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