Pork Three Ways

Only one presidential candidate takes a principled stand against earmarks.

On Friday a House Appropriations Committee website was so overwhelmed by legislators' wish lists that it crashed, forcing the committee to extend the deadline for earmark requests until Monday. Most members of Congress seem to think the problem with earmarks is like the problem with the committee's server: not any particular person's demands, just all of them together.

On the face of it, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, and the two remaining contenders for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, take a different view: All three supported a one-year moratorium on earmarks that the Senate recently rejected by a wide margin. But only McCain has taken a principled stand against the pet projects that legislators love to slip into spending bills.

"We Republicans came to power in 1994 to change government," McCain told the Riverside, California, Press Enterprise last year, "and the government changed us. That's why we lost the election: We began to value power over principle."

For the Arizona senator, ever-escalating earmarks symbolized how power corrupted the Republicans. It was not just in the most glaring ways, as when Randy Cunningham, the former Republican congressman from San Diego, exchanged defense earmarks for bribes. It was also in the far more common and accepted practice of using earmarks to reward campaign contributors and buy votes.

More fundamentally, Republicans betrayed their commitment to fiscal restraint (not to mention their responsibility to uphold the Constitution) by spending federal tax dollars on local matters. As McCain puts it on his campaign website, earmarks "divert taxpayer dollars to special interest pet projects with little or no national value." He warns that "every dollar irresponsibly spent by Congress is a dollar diverted from pressing national priorities."

I don't necessarily agree with McCain's national priorities or his notion of fiscal responsibility, which includes an open-ended commitment to an ill-considered and increasingly expensive war in Iraq. But at least he makes the point that the federal government was not created so that taxpayers in New Jersey could pay for bridges in Alaska or sweet potato research in Mississippi.

"Pork barrel spending," McCain says, "is an insult to taxpayers, a waste of public resources, and an abdication of our leaders' responsibility to be good and honorable stewards of the public treasury, for the benefit of all Americans, not just a few." He says he wants to end, not mend, earmarks, and in the meantime he declines to seek them for his own state.

By contrast, Obama seems to think the main problem with earmarks is a lack of visibility. To his credit, the Illinois senator co-sponsored (along with McCain) legislation that has made information about earmarks more readily available than ever before. He says earmark spending should be reduced, suggesting much of it is inappropriate.

Yet Obama, who is in his first term, also complains that earmarks are distributed based on seniority rather than "merit," and he worries that obtaining funding is too difficult for cities and nonprofit groups. One man's pork is another's job-generating, life-enhancing boon. Obama surely thinks all his earmark requests, which last year included money for theaters, museums, and hospitals in Chicago, are perfectly justified.

That goes quadruple for Hillary Clinton. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, Clinton placed 10th in the Senate pork pulling competition last year, obtaining a total of $342 million in earmarks, almost four times Obama's haul. In the 2008 defense authorization bill, the New York senator received $148 million in earmarks, more than anyone except the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Her earmark total from 2002 to 2006 was $2.2 billion.

But according to Clinton, these expenditures, including money for "local artist space" in Buffalo, firefighting equipment in Oswego, "clean fuel buses" in Syracuse, the Historic Seneca Knitting Mill in Rochester, and the Eleanor Roosevelt Center in Val-Kill, are not earmarks. They are "Investments in New York," and she is "very proud" of every one.

© Copyright 2008 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • Jacob T. Levy||

    In the linked-to article, Obama says "We can no longer accept an earmarks process that has become so complicated to navigate that a municipality or nonprofit group has to hire high-priced D.C. lobbyists." Jacob Sullum paraphrases this as

    'Yet Obama, who is in his first term, also complains that earmarks are distributed based on seniority rather than "merit."'

    This is likely to be a misreading. Funding projects according to merit-- e.g. funding university research through peer-review at NSF-- isn't earmarking. Funding according to merit is what the executive agencies are supposed to do with their Congressional appropriations, whereas earmarks are Congress' particular decisions about which projects should be funded. Unsurprisingly, they go to the powerful members of Congress-- the tie to "seniority" is a structural part of the earmarking system, not a changeable critoerion about how earmarks are allocated.

    I don't think Obama's asking for merit-based earmarks; I think he's joining in the criticism of earmarks as such.

  • Jacob T. Levy||

    whoops; sorry. the relevant Obama passage is

    ""We can no longer accept a process that doles out earmarks based on a member of Congress's seniority, rather than the merit of the project."

    Copied the wrong sentence; the point stands.

  • ||

    Well, anyone can make a "principled stand" on a hot button issue a year or two out from an election knowing they have presidential aspirations. I'm hoping to find McCain's entire record on earmarks. Was he earmarking his way through the 90's? If he wasn't, I will be extremely impressed.

  • Dr. Freud||

    Folks, earmarks are nickels and dimes.

    The real money is found in Medicare/Medicaid, the Pentagon, Social Security, and interest on the debt.

    McCain claims not to like earmarks but he's all for staying in Iraq ($12 billion a month upfront, probably $20+ billion a month including long-term expenses).

  • Mad Max||

    To expand on Dr. Freud's remarks:

    I can't say I'm impressed by Senator McPennywise-but-Pound-Foolish. His objection to earmarks seems to be that they aren't big and grand enough. Why earmark a couple million for the Turnip Museum in your district/state, when you could be spending billions to democratize the world at bayonet point, provide massive wealth transfers to the voters, and regulate political speech?

  • Untermensch||

    Folks, earmarks are nickels and dimes.

    The real money is found in Medicare/Medicaid, the Pentagon, Social Security, and interest on the debt.



    True, but it misses the point that this blockbuster programs are (at least rhetorically) part of the national interest and thus (again at least rhetorically) within the scope of the Federal government. I disagree that the Federal government should be in any of these except defense (and the Pentagon in its current form has little to do with defense), but at least these are programs at the national (and thus Federal) level.

    Earmarks, on the other hand, are like free money to the people who make them. There is no accountability and, in most cases, not even a figleaf of justification that they have to to do with the national body politic. So by all means, go after the large structural problems, but it is the small-scale ability to loot the treasury in exchange for patronage that reveals the venality and robber-baron mentality of of dear leaders™.

  • Dr. Freud||

    Robber baron mentality ? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. The robber barons were private sector actors !

  • Matt Welch||

    McCain has also been talking about tackling reform of the major entitlements as well. Though I don't think he'd get anywhere with it.

  • Pablo Escobar||

    Actually, if you're against earmarks you should be voting for Ron Paul, who votes against the earmark requests he passes on to Congress (sometimes defeating the bill) and whose constituents complain in the local paper that they aren't getting enough of taxpayer money.

    It's easy to be principled before an election. We all remember what George "humble foreign policy" Bush was saying during the 2000 campaign right?

    I'd like Reason to compare McCain's voting record on earmarks with Paul's.

  • Mad Max||

    "Congressman John Jones *says* he wants to be an effective Congressman.

    "But did you know that Citizens against government waste has called Congressman Jones 'the porkiest Congressman in the history of the universe?'

    "Did you know that Congressman Jones handles so much pork that Orthodox Jewish rabbis are not permitted to get within a mile of him?

    "Congressman Jones has filed the most earmark requests of any Congressman, bringing billions of dollars of unnecessary spending into this district and sticking the residents of other districts with the tab.

    "What are you going to do about it?

    "Paid for by the Committee to Re-Elect Congressman Jones."

  • ||

    Pablo,

    That ship sailed a long time ago.

  • Pablo Escobar||

    Yeah I know, but worth bringing up the "gold standard" of what a politician should be for those with short memories.

    By the way, Cato Institute recently had this to say about Ron Paul: "One candidate has proposed ending the post-1971 experiment with an unanchored fiat dollar issued by the Federal Reserve and returning to a gold standard with private money issue."

    The author concludes by saying that the gold standard is not a crazy idea.

    http://www.cato.org/pubs/policy_report/v30n2/cpr30n2-1.html

  • stuartl||

    Mad Max -- You are perfectly describing John "I'm not going to apologize for that" Murtha.

  • stuartl||

    Which is why Obama's transparency proposals are good, but not enough.

  • ||

    Earmarks may be a relatively small part of overall spending, but they are used to grease the skids for large scale spending programs. How many little earmarks were used to purchase line up votes for the monstrous drug giveaway?

  • stephen the goldberger||

    The earmark argument is a distraction, and an attempt for Republicans to appear principled when they are/have been anything but. Its insulting that McCain/republicans can get up there and claim to be for small government because they attack earmarks, while simultaneously approving massive budgets for entitlement programs and foreign wars, and uhhhh stimulus packages.

  • Episiarch||

    It's a shame Sentor Grampa McAngrypants supports a gazillion-dollar war, otherwise he might actually be believable when he talks about cutting unnecessary spending.

    Until Gaius Julius McCain stops pulling the Gallic Middle Eastern Wars routine, however, he's just talking chump change.

  • ||

    If "merit" is something you need to put in scare quotes, then how is McCain's effort to shift spending discretion from the politicians in Congress to the federal agencies - which is what opposing earmarks amounts to - worthwhile at all?

    Why you kill an earmark to build a Bridge to Nowhere, you are saying that the same amount of money should be spent, but on projects deemed to have more merit by the Department of Transportation.

  • Fluffy||

    I rarely encounter a measure to limit federal spending that I don't like, but there is a separation of powers issue here that gets very little discussion and that makes me look askance at the anti-earmark crowd.

    The power to earmark arises from the legislative branch's ability to control the text of appropriations. Instead of merely passing a budget handing $X to a particular department, the budget document passed by the Congress awards $X but directs the department to spend some portion of that amount on particular projects named in the legislation.

    I don't see any way to eliminate earmarks without utterly removing that power from the legislative branch, and essentially reducing the Congress' role in the budget process to assigning "block grants" of funds to executive branch departments. This would seriously change the balance of power between the two branches in the budget process in the executive's favor.

    The specific earmark projects that get money may all suck, but I would be hesitant to further enhance the power of the executive branch and dress down the legislature, given recent political history in the US.

    There are lots of areas where the Congress spends money where libertarians don't think they should, and where constitutionalists think the federal government has overstepped its powers. But the proper remedy for that is political [elect better legislators] or judicial [get the judiciary to rein in the scope of federal activity]. Just because neither of those seem very doable at the moment is no reason to start neutering the Congress and further entrenching executive supremacy.

    I am not surprised that McCain is leading the charge on this, since that ties in to his other authoritarian tendencies. Don't like spending? Remove the power of Congress to write legislation! Typical McCain solution.

  • ||

    By contrast, Obama seems to think the main problem with earmarks is a lack of visibility.

    That's not quite fair. Transparency isn't end unto itself; transparency, like all sunshine, is a way to shame an embarrass people requesting foolish earmarks, in order to discourage such behavior.

  • ||

    shame an embarrass people requesting foolish earmarks

    Shame? Read that WSJ article about Murtha. Shame only works on those who aren't shameless.

  • ||

    From joe:


    Why you kill an earmark to build a Bridge to Nowhere, you are saying that the same amount of money should be spent, but on projects deemed to have more merit by the Department of Transportation.



    Plus what Fluffy said.

    Besides, earmarks at least are written down someplace easily open to public scrutiny (even if budget bills are hundreds of pages long). Banning earmarks is like banning anything else; it doesn't address the underlying behavior. Instead we will channel Congress into doing what they used to do more (and still do, seeing the Air Force tanker nonsense): twist the arms of agency heads and other civil servants over the phone and at committee hearings.

    Individual agencies can't expect the President to stick up for them against earmarking tendencies just because they're under the purvey of the Executive. Presidents pick their battles.

  • ||

    I hear you, Warty, but what Fluffy said.

    I really don't see any way to get earmarks under control except through the political process.

    Hmm.....

    Yup, we're doomed.

  • Elemenope||

    Shame only works on those who aren't shameless.

    Most politicians, despite popular wisdom, are not Murtha-esque.

    As usual, though, Fluffy has already won the thread; no more work to do.

  • Tacos mmm...||

    Penny-wise and pound-foolish is exactly right. There's no point worrying about earmarks when you're pouring near a billion a day into a giant hole in the desert.

  • TallDave||

    Earmarks are corruption. They amount to legalized bribery, funded by taxpayers. Whether they are material to a trillion dollar budget is irrelevent.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "They amount to legalized bribery, funded by taxpayers"

    Yes - as someone else mentioned above, they are often used as enticements to line up support for passing much larger scope spending programs. Like new "entitlements" for prescription drugs for seniors.

  • ||

    Instead of merely passing a budget handing $X to a particular department, the budget document passed by the Congress awards $X but directs the department to spend some portion of that amount on particular projects named in the legislation.

    The vast majority of earmarks are not included in the legislation actually passed by Congress, so I'm not sure the separation of powers thing actually applies.

    Why you kill an earmark to build a Bridge to Nowhere, you are saying that the same amount of money should be spent, but on projects deemed to have more merit by the Department of Transportation.

    So, who is more likely to blow the money on something stupid? A Congressman with contributors expecting a return on their investment, or a bunch of drones at some agency?

  • Fluffy||

    The vast majority of earmarks are not included in the legislation actually passed by Congress, so I'm not sure the separation of powers thing actually applies.

    The ones that aren't generally are included in the Committee report and could just as easily be in the legislation itself, and WOULD be if the administrative shortcut of putting them in a committee report wasn't available.

    Besides, if you're conceding the point that a minority of earmarks are included directly in the appropriations legislation, then there's no way to get rid of earmarks without changing the way appropriations legislation is written. Both because a) the legislation does in fact contain earmarks directly and b) if you tried to get rid of soft earmarks, the Congress would just put all the earmarks into the legislation directly anyway.

  • ||

    RC,

    So, who is more likely to blow the money on something stupid? A Congressman with contributors expecting a return on their investment, or a bunch of drones at some agency?

  • ||

    I'm with you here, RC. Remember, I wrote that while dissenting the writer's scare quote-sneer at the idea of merit.

    Yes, some projects have more merit than others, and yes, people work at the D.O.T. are probably more able and more willing to consider different transportation projects on their merits than Congressmen.

    (But then, you don't think Congress should be allowed to pass a bill that authorizes an executive agency to draw up standards for implementing Congress's desires, remember?)

  • ||

    Jacob Sullum couldn't be more wrong. Earmark spending is accountable to the people, and specific. I suppose the people should be more attentive, and less greedy, but we do know where the money goes.

    On the other hand lobbyists use huge amounts of private money to get politicians to change regulations, subsidize industrial sectors, create mandates, etc. All of which costs the taxpayers a great deal. John McCain is lousy with lobbyists in his campaign. ( see http://rightsfield.com/2007/06/25/mccains-lobbyist-welfare-program/ )

    John McCain and principled is an oxymoron.

  • Kdog||

    Earmarks are part of a larger issue of politicians spending other people's money for their own political benefit. No one said that ending earmarks would solve the larger problem entirely, but it would help that money be spend in a way that would be more useful.

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