Federal Spending Is Out of Control. No, Earmarks Won't Change That.

Congress throws far too much money at special interests.


A fight is brewing over bringing back earmarks—provisions that are inserted into spending bills by individual members of Congress to send money to politically favored entities in their districts. There has been a moratorium on earmarks since 2011.

Those who want the return of earmarks claim the practice smooths out the budget process and fosters bipartisanship. Others insist that the return of earmarks would mean a surge of wasteful giveaways to special interest groups and congressional corruption. While both sides have valid points, this debate continues to distract us from the fact that the federal government is excessively big and, even without earmarks, spends money on things that it should never spend it on.

Making the most thoughtful case for bringing back earmarks is the American Enterprise Institute's Kevin Kosar and Claremont McKenna College's Zachary Courser. Their detailed research explains that right now, because of the absence of earmarks, legislators face overwhelming incentives to vote with their parties regardless of the legislation. That means no appropriations bills get through until they're rolled into a giant omnibus bill and put on the floor the day before a government shutdown.

This leads them to conclude that if earmarks were sensibly reinstated, they would increase legislators' incentives to bargain and enact proper appropriations bills. These incentives would be particularly effective for legislators in the minority. Without earmarks in an appropriations bill favored by the majority party, legislators in the minority have less incentive to cross party lines and vote for the bill. Earmarks that benefit their districts change that dynamic.

This bipartisanship sounds like more spending. However, as Kosar and Courser show, spending has still exploded in the last decade despite a lack of earmarking. Among other things, that's because the power and incentive to fund these particular local political deals didn't disappear. It was simply transferred to executive branch agencies. In the end, as the argument for the return of earmarks takes shape, the question is who should be in charge of spending. On that point, the pro-earmark crowd has a constitutional point.

But if the Constitution is to guide us, we must ask whether Congress should be spending that money at all. I understand that most earmarks are boring, e.g., funding exit-ramp construction on a highway. I even understand how restoring earmarks could promote bipartisanship. Though, considering the size of government, I'd argue there's plenty of bipartisanship already. In spite of all this, it's obvious to me that Congress has no place funding such local projects through earmarks or in any other way.

This is the irony of earmarks and their demise. Back in the day, they made headlines thanks to outrageous examples such as the "bridge to nowhere," an earmark that would have paid millions of federal dollars for a bridge connecting a town of 8,900 people in rural Alaska to its airport on a tiny 50-person island. Small-government politicians were shocked and furious at the use of federal tax dollars to serve special interests in exchange for political contributions.

They were right to be outraged, but why stop at earmarks? Throwing money at special interests is what Congress does. Much of the Department of Education is a big earmark for powerful teachers unions. Infrastructure bills are packed with spending items that should be the responsibility of state and local government, or of the private sector, but not Uncle Sam. Have you looked at the thousands of federal grants distributed each year? It's a cornucopia of special interest handouts.

Also, while I appreciate the pro-earmark side's promise to install guardrails so that tax dollars don't go to the private sector, I wish that rule applied to the entire federal budget. Why do we tolerate the existence of agencies like the Export-Import Bank, which is dedicated to boosting sales for large and well-connected companies such as General Electric and Boeing? We shouldn't.

Earmarks are a distraction from our bigger problems. Yes, they're used to fund items that shouldn't be funded by the federal government. Yes, their return may give added incentives to legislators for working together. But what do we do about the fact that the call for earmarks exposes politicians for the self-serving actors that they are? This, after all, is the most honest admission that without a bride, politicians are unwilling to fulfill their main job of passing a federal budget on time and through the regular process.


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  1. Maybe earmarks would lead to a quicker collapse.

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  2. I agree with all of this. It really feels like the political process has matured and there’s nothing new to try other than backtrack and re-tread old paths and argue about which is marginally better. In fact, we really need to just cut back budgets – social security, medicare, defense, infrastructure, law enforcement, education, etc. The problem is that everyone has their sacred cow that they will defend unto the death. The only solution is for everyone to accept that their ox will be gored. The fact is, we’re all grown up and don’t need big government to patrol and control us any more.

    Cue the libertarians concern trolling about turning grandma into soylent green:

    1. Well as long as she’s not murdered…

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  3. The politicians main job is to defend liberty. In fact it’s their only job. Everything else is tyranny.

  4. This, after all, is the most honest admission that without a bride, politicians are unwilling to fulfill their main job of passing a federal budget on time and through the regular process.

    Holy shit, are you suggesting they’ve revived the concept of prima nocta? I did not know that! No wonder these guys fight so hard! But I wouldn’t demand a bride, a blowjob’s good enough for me.

  5. “Small-government politicians were shocked and furious at the use of federal tax dollars to serve special interests in exchange for political contributions.”

    This is the definition of bribery. Just arrest them and get on with business.

  6. Neither Congress nor the Executive [with all its bureaucracy] is going to do anything to gore their own ox; they never will. It has become so far beyond any semblance of control by the public that it can only be “fixed” in one of two ways:

    1. The financial mis-management [to put it kindly] will eventually result in national bankruptcy, at which point we literally belong to China, or

    2. We make it stop.

    As to how, I have become aware of an apparently grass roots movement called “The Convention of States.” Are any of you aware of it, and if so, what are your thoughts about it? It cites Article V of the US Constitution as a means to call a Constitutional Convention; first on it’s agenda is budgetary restraints, followed by mandatory term limits [another thing the class of professional politicians will ever support] and tax reform [abolish the 16th?].

    1. On the subject of a constitutional convention may be the only time I’ve ever agreed with Phillis Schlafly. The agenda for a convention is completely unconstrained by the current constitution, and the process is undefined. Literally anything could result. This would be the “smoke filled room” on steroids. The amendment process works just fine, thank you.


  7. But if the Constitution is to guide us

    If? If? Each of the pieces of human debris warming a chair in Congress and the White House takes an oath to the thing. Until the electorate starts holding them accountable nothing positive will happen until things implode.

    In other words, nothing positive is going to happen until things implode.

    1. State Nullification (establishing the proper authority between State and Federal) is a far better option. An entirely imploded federal would leave the country open for foreign invasion or a civil war the left just might win this time and allow them to create their ‘slave’ nation in full effect.

      And frankly; I think the real root of the problem is voter fraud; American’s cannot possibly be housing that many blatantly stupid and treasonous citizens who cannot come to terms with the fact that STEALING is wrong and EARNING is required.

  8. And to think the U.S. Constitution only allowed spending on National DEFENSE. Oh yeah; that’s the VERY F-EN reason the federal government was even established in the first place.

    That day USA citizens lost focus on what country they even live in and started discussing a REVOLUTION of implementing a Nazi (def; National Socialist) Regime so far 85% effective and to the detriment of the very foundation of the USA and proving to be the EXACT same utter disaster as German Nazism by every passing day.

    1. Sadly, your comment is not hyperbole; several years ago I would probably have tagged it as such, but no longer.

      So what do we do? I am looking into The Convention of States as one possibility [a commenter here made me aware of it the other day]; yes, getting another 19 states to pass legislation [15 already have] to call for an Article V convention is an uphill yet doable task. Congress will no doubt be very “bipartisan” about nullifying it, especially as any actual citizen effort to control government will be an existential threat to the professional politicians and the burgeoning executive bureaucracy that wants to take our money and rule our lives [business as usual]. But the only alternative I can see is, as you say, to let it ride into ruin which isn’t all that far off.

      And I sure as hell do not want to live under Communist Chinese hegemony.

      1. Well; my opinion on solutions are:
        1) I’m hoping currently so long as Biden doesn’t stuff the Supreme Court with crooks. The U.S. Constitution would stand with the current seats – probably wishful thinking but we won’t know until State’s start nullifying UN-Constitutional federal law.

        2) The Convention of States also has promise as a qualifier of original text/intent being manipulated and construed beyond belief. At the same time I have to wonder how every politician swears an oath to it but deceitfully pretends it doesn’t even exist. In that respect I have doubts any Convention of States would put the “The People’s” law (i.e. U.S. Constitution) back OVER the federal regime. But it’s worth the effort to try and perhaps even to the point of ‘federal’ regime full-house clean and restart. Which on the proposal for congressmen term-limits might succeed as promised.

        3) And lastly and mostly discouraged event; The people will have to build unity with State-Gov leadership who will unionize an insurrection against a sitting National Socialist Federal Government in order to re-instate the U.S. Constitution authority as “The People’s” supreme law over them.

  9. The traditional image politicians as pigs at a trough is insulting to pigs.

  10. I think there should be a fourth “branch” of government with the authority to audit the rest of the Federal government, to publicize the expenditures, and to declare whether a budget is “balance” or not. This would be in conjunction with some kind of Balanced Budget Amendment. (I don’t know what that would look like, but it would be more than just “Thou shalt balance the budget” since that would be easy to work around.)

    1. Perhaps Paul Krugman could be the director of that branch.

    2. A “fourth branch” of government; well any notion about a “fourth estate” [that also exists to only serve it’s own interests] aside, that is supposed to be you and me.

      1. And the ballot printers; Don’t be anti-ink – support ballot printers! 🙂

    1. Yes, that would be like a branch of government that is supposed to police itself as well as others…which is the essence of the problem to begin with.

  11. I stopped caring much as I fully expect the fed gov to implode in the next decade. It will take down some states with it, but those who value freedom won’t miss the tyranny.

    1. “It will take down some states with it,”

      I don’t suppose there is any prize for naming those States?

  12. My modest proposal requires a line-item approval in spending bills.
    When a bill comes out of committee and up for a floor vote, each representative would be required to vote on every line-item. Those items receiving more than 50% in both houses would be included in the final bill sent to the executive for approval. Any abstention would constitute a nay vote.

    The implementation would be trivial with computers. Each representative would then need to justify to their constituents every penny that he or she voted to spend. Tossing in an executive line item veto with the line-item approval couldn’t hurt either.

    We must remember that one man’s bacon is another man’s pork. If a representative can convince voters of the need to vote for pork in order to bring home the bacon, then so be it.


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