Government Spending

The Case for Earmarks

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Jonathan Rauch argues that earmarks today "are a model, not a menace":

In the 1980s and 1990s, the once-sequestered system cracked open. The number of earmarks increased by a factor of 25 between 1991 and 2005. Earmarks were often invisible, at least until after they were enacted. "The bill would be passed before people even started digging into what was in there," [Scott] Lilly says. Public outrage swelled.

On its heels, however, came reform, notably in the last couple of years. Every earmark request now must be made public before Congress votes on it. The sponsoring member, the amount and nature of the request, and the name and address of the beneficiary must all be disclosed. You can find all this stuff online….[M]any congressional offices have formalized the application procedure. Getting an earmark now is a lot like applying for a grant.

As transparency has taken over, the case against earmarks has melted away. Their budgetary impact is trivial in comparison with entitlements and other large programs. Obsessing about earmarks, indeed, has the perverse, if convenient, effect of distracting the country from its real spending problems, thus substituting indignation for discipline.

Read the whole thing here. Earmarks' critics are right to be vigilant for pork, and—more important—for the logrolling that often accompanies it. But they might want to spare a little more ire for military and entitlement spending.

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  1. Now ain’t that interesting! Ron Paul says the same thing!

  2. Gotta disagree with Rauch on the earmarks. My take was that earmarks are simply a way of buying forgiveness for passing huge spending bills.

  3. I think people hate earmarks on principle, not for their relatively miniscule portion of the overall budget. I would add that most people don’t hate those earmarks that benefit them personally.

  4. I have always said that the focus on earmarks is misguided because they are relative chump change and in general do not alter the amount of federal spending (it’s just an alternative to competitive bidding for the most part)

    As transparency has taken over, the case against earmarks has melted away.

    I wouldn’t go this far however. Yes sure, we have transparency. But with re-election rates continuously north of

  5. 90% in the House – and the likely positive correlation between earmarks and re-election probability – it’s transparency without accountability.

  6. Their budgetary impact is trivial in comparison with entitlements and other large programs.

    I’ve always hated this kind of “it’s only a drop in the ocean” argument. Bad spending policies are bad no matter their size.

    First of all, military and entitlement spending are entrenched and codified, whereas earmarks are discretionary (in the actual sense of the term). So focus on earmarks is a focus on the kinds of decisions the clowns in congress are making. Military and entitlement spending, on the other hand, is emblematic of the structural problems in the federal government.

    Second, even a small problem is still a problem. It’s also probably relatively easier to address for being such.

  7. trying to unfrak my tags above

  8. Here* is another take on earmarks, one more in line with my way of thinking.

    What Stern, Kammer and Condon uncovered in their investigation of Cunningham’s criminality went far beyond the rather seedy yet spectacular corruption of one Congressman. The authors have written a brief against the budget device that led Cunningham (and no doubt others) down a primrose path toward temptation and ultimately, a moral surrender to turpitude. It is a device that threatens the foundations of trust in our elected officials: the belief that they are acting in the interests of their constituents and not to line their pockets with gifts and cash from the legions of lobbyists whose only job is to wring as much of our tax dollars as is humanly possible from the government and deposit it in the bank accounts of their clients (keeping a healthy portion of pork for themselves).

    The device is earmarks, of course. And if you can come away after reading this book and not be shaking in anger at the unadulterated and transparent corruption that earmarks have fostered, then you don’t pay taxes or simply don’t care about the theft of your money.

    * Wanting evidence for a rebuttal, I simply googled “Duke Cinningham earmarks” and this jumped out at me.

  9. It’s a little hard to get folks riled up about wasteful government spending on the heels of paroxyms of private-sector greed and fraud, but I can see how you libertarian fanatics have to keep trying. Obama’s budget is leaving you fuckwits in the dust, isn’t it?

  10. I’ve become immune to caring about earmarks. The greater evil is how Congress decides that they are going to spend $X Billion, and then that amount is split amongst the Congressmen. It’s the appropriations committees who need to be slain every time they decide this huge amount of money, which will then be earmarked, must be spent.

  11. Kolohe, I wasn’t set back but for a moment with by your HTML misadventure.

  12. As others have noted earmarks receive a vastly disproportionate amount of attention vs. their harm ($18 billion in a $3 trillion budget).

    Wait till its the SS/Medicare old folks (vs.) the Defense Industry!

    That will be king of budget showdowns.

    Something tells me the GOP will be the demographic loser on that one too.

  13. We must repeal the 17th amendment.

  14. The case against earmarks is not about the earmarks themselves, it’s about the bills that get passed as a result of the presence of earmarks.

    There is a strong correlation between overall spending and earmark spending for a reason — congressmen who might have voted their conscience, or, god forbid, their constituents’ interests on a bill, instead make their decision based on what they can squeeze out for their own pet projects knowing full well that enough others will also go along provided they also get a slice. Take away this distortion of the process and the dynamic changes to what else they can take credit for: what they can cut out.

  15. BSG is really pissing me off. What was the point of the fucking flashbacks that took up half the episode? Boo hoo, Roslin’s sisters died, Starbuck liked Zach, and Baltar was a dick to his dad. Thank you for the crucial information, you dicks. Oh, and there was a pigeon, too. Fuck you, BSG. If you don’t have time to wrap up the series in a logical way because you squandered it all on the TV equivalent of guitar solos, I’ll be pissed.

    Anyone else care to vent?

  16. The case against earmarks is not about the earmarks themselves, it’s about the bills that get passed as a result of the presence of earmarks.

    That is an excellent point.

    Senator Shelby was the #1 recipient of Senate pork.

    What does that say about him?

  17. The case against earmarks is not about the earmarks themselves, it’s about the bills that get passed as a result of the presence of earmarks.

    Yes, that’s the logrolling I referred to. I think Rauch would reply that the problem goes much deeper than the earmark system, and that earmarks at least make the trading more transparent.

  18. Publicity for earmarks seems like a classic Brer-Rabbit-in-the-Briar-Patch situation (if you’ll pardon such a racist reference which is obviously designed to denigrate our first black President).

    “Oh, no, don’t let my constituents find out about all the pork I’ve earmarked for my district instead of other districts! And whatever you do, don’t denounce me as the ‘king of pork’ or any such term indicating that the federal government may be putting more money back into my district than it takes out of it! How could I get re-elected if the voters find out about all the nice, juicy slabs of pork I’ve been serving them?”

  19. why are you hier? isn’t there a roman empire thread for you to post on, shithead?

  20. My town is getting a turtle museum!
    I want to go to there!

  21. I only skimmed the linked article, but it seems more like the case against the case against earmarks. In any case, it wasn’t very convincing.

  22. Indeed, they should spare more ire for military spending, because now is the perfect time to reduce spending on the military.

  23. I heard former libertarian Dana Rohrabacher, (r) somewhere in So Cal, arguing in favor of earmarks the other day on the radio.

    Big Sigh.

    Went to a couple parties at his place in Belmont Shore back in the day (dating myself, but Dana is older than me). Whoa! Dude, that is a man who could party.

    He won’t remember me so don’t ask. Ed Royce, OTOH, will, though.

    See, this kinda shit makes me look important at cocktail parties. Or not.

  24. More or less the same argument Ron Paul made a few days ago:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iz2aIWjyOp8

    Now I don’t much believe in the guy, but I can see his point: earmarking is about deciding where the money goes, not whether the money goes. You don’t want it spent, you vote against the spending bill itself. If you don’t earmark it, then our vile and 0bomanable Pres__ent gets to decide where it all goes.

  25. Earmarks are just death by a thousand paper cuts. And let’s not forget that earmarks help get the worst spending bills passed. The bailout failed the first time around, then passed with $150B in earmarks. Those $150B earmarks cost $850B, not to mention the side effects.

  26. While publicizing earmarks may well help some representatives show off their ability to get pork, it will at least reduce some of the self-dealing that happens with these earmarks (maybe).

  27. The term earmark as altered meaning over the last 5 years. Originally, the term meant only spending inserted during the conference committee between the house and the senate. Any changes there were only subject to an up or down vote on the entire bill in each chamber. Now days, earmarks just means dedicated pork meant to benefit a particular member of congress. How the pork gets inserted into the bill isn’t really a factor. The original definition of earmark targeted a particular corrupt legislative practice intentionally designed to subvert democratic compromise.

    The problem with all pork, regardless of how it gets legislated has nothing to do with the overall amount of money being spent (which according the article is 2% of federal spending or roughly 40 billion dollars.) Pork is the tiny rudder that steers the great ship of government spending. Congressmen trade a vote on $200 billion in spending on one bill for $2 million in spending on their private pork. Pork lets the party leaders discipline wayward members by threatening to cut off projects for their districts unless they vote the party line on big projects.

    The way to end this is to get the congress out of the business of voting on small projects that only affect on members district. Honestly, should the entire U.S. congress be voting on funding a single bike path in Madison, WI? Congress should stick to the big picture and leave the piddling stuff to federal bueracrats, the states and localities.

    Ain’t gonna happen, though.

  28. Yeah, but look what happens when someone brings up entitlement spending.

    You can’t touch entitlements because they have huge entrenched constituencies defending them.

    Constituencies that are in deep denial about the economic sustainability of these programs. They live in some kind of fantasy universe where the US economy grows 5% a year indefinitely to make up the shortfall. Any suggestion that this isn’t going to happen is met with hysterical screams that opponents want old people to starve and die in the streets.

  29. Any suggestion that this isn’t going to happen is met with hysterical screams that opponents want old people to starve and die in the streets.

    I often counter by pointing out that I do want old people to starve and die in the streets.

    I don’t have many friends, though…

  30. “Their budgetary impact is trivial in comparison with entitlements and other large programs.”

    A million dollar bribe is very small compared to the rest of the budget. Why not just allow those? Earmarks allow Congress people and their chronies to get rich at the expense of the tax payer. Making them transparent doesn’t change that fact.

  31. Warty | March 14, 2009, 5:03pm | #
    BSG is really pissing me off. What was the point of the fucking flashbacks that took up half the episode? Boo hoo, Roslin’s sisters died, Starbuck liked Zach, and Baltar was a dick to his dad. Thank you for the crucial information, you dicks. Oh, and there was a pigeon, too. Fuck you, BSG. If you don’t have time to wrap up the series in a logical way because you squandered it all on the TV equivalent of guitar solos, I’ll be pissed.

    Anyone else care to vent?

    I haven’t seen it yet, but hearing this is pissing me off.
    Now I know that all i have to look forward to is crap. That kind of irritates me.

    What I wanted out of an episode I haven’t seen is to know if Kara is a Cylon. To know why the caprica cylons allowed the earth skinjobs to take out their independence chips, and to become their bosses,

    To know if in fact the earth humans were in fact all cylons, and that cylons are an improved form of humanity that allows us to not die.

    I don’t want pigeons and family drama.

    So, some of my questions might already be answered, I am about 2 or 3 episodes behind. They are downloaded onto my laptop, but I haven’t seen them yet.

  32. I seriously question the value of “transparency” in the context of a spending bill with 9,000 earmarks. Its the classic needle-in-a-haystack strategy.

    With that many earmarks, the “bad” ones are unlikely to be outed simply because there is such a large herd for them to hide in.

  33. Honestly, should the entire U.S. congress be voting on funding a single bike path in Madison, WI? Congress should stick to the big picture and leave the piddling stuff to federal bueracrats, the states and localities.

    Seriously, you’d rather not have spending on a bike path determined by members of Congress subject to election? You’d rather have it decided by unelected bureaucrats? Or have it block granted to a state whose politicians aren’t dependent on state taxes for those dollars, and hence can get credit for bringing home bacon without blame for the taxes to fund it?

    This is why I’m in favor of earmarking as much as possible of every spending bill.

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