Congress Needs a Robot to Make Tough Decisions

Congressional Republicans' decision to forego earmarks cedes President Obama total control over the appropriations process. This could not have been the goal of those Tea Partiers who pressed for reform.

This draconian response does not address what Tea Partiers consider the major challenge before Congress: how to restore reason to the process by which Congress determines which projects to pursue. How do 535 lawmakers decide whose highways, bridges, post offices, hospitals, colleges, orchestras, theater groups etc. are the most deserving of federal funds? One suggestion would take these earmarks out of an omnibus bill, and have a debate and up or down vote on each project. Such scrutiny wold be admirable, but since there were more than 17,000 earmarks in the stimulus package alone, this strategy may be a bit time consuming.

Then there are those who advise a cosmetic approach, following the lead of President Reagan, whose administration called a tax increase "revenue enhancement." A simply name change could do the trick. How about "Freedom Projects?" But Tea Partiers are likely to reject such a superficial solution.

Why not take politics entirely out of the process? Why not feed into a computer the criteria that should provide a rational basis for prioritizing the nation's needs, such as the extent of disrepair of a highway, or the districts most in need of a V.A. hospital or a first-class institution of higher learning, and let the computer spew out a list of those projects that address our nation's greatest needs? We could call the computer an "Earmarakatron."

But why stop at earmarks? Why not let computers make all the decisions that so vex the nation's lawmakers -- from questions of war and peace to those of trade and health care? It's simply a matter of feeding the computer the criteria needed to make sound judgments.

Yes, there will be howls of protest from Congress, especially those members who were experts at bringing home the bacon. They will argue that government, like politics, is an art, not a science. They will say no computer in the world has the judgment needed to assess all the factors that go into sound decisiion-making. But neither does Congress, if recent experience is a guide. In time we may learn to live without Congress altogether. Think of the money we'll save.

Martin and Susan Tolchin are authors of Pinstripe Patronage: Political Favoritism from the Clubhouse to the White House and Beyond. Mr. Tolchin capped 40 years at the N.Y. Times by founding The Hill and was senior publisher and editor of Politico. Susan Tolchin is a university professor of public policy at George Mason University.

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