Beyond the Anti-Earmark Crusade

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As a former advisor to one of Congress’s most ardent foes of earmarking, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), I’ve served time on the front-lines of the battle to end the corruptive practice. Yet, I never felt quite comfortable about the mission. At the same time I was assisting the senator in his floor battles against the likes of ex-Sen. Ted Stevens (Porker-AK), some of my other colleagues had been instructed to help Oklahomans get “their fair share” of subsidies from various federal grant programs.

There just isn’t much difference between the activities funded via earmarking and the activities funded by standard bureaucratic processes. The means are different, but the ends are typically the same: federal taxpayers paying for parochial benefits that are properly the domain of state and local governments, or preferably, the private sector. As a federal taxpayer, I’m no better off if the U.S. Dept. of Transportation decides to fund a bridge in Alaska or if Alaska’s congressional delegation instructs the DOT to fund the bridge.

Therefore, earmarking is a symptom of the problem. The problem is the existence of programs that enables the federal government to spend money on parochial activities. I recently made this point in an op-ed on earmarking:

Critics of the Republicans’ earmark ban have a point when they argue that it won’t save a lot of money. While the tawdry and often questionable uses of earmarked money draw a lot of attention, it represents less than half of 1% of total federal spending.

Yes, earmarking greases the skids for bigger spending and more intrusive government. Policymakers are more willing to support a particular piece of legislation if it contains goodies for their district or state. But earmarked money almost always comes from federal programs that are themselves constitutionally and practically dubious.

In the wake of the earmarking ban by Republicans, much of the debate has centered on the propriety of Congress abdicating its “power of the purse” to the executive branch. This argument is largely irrelevant considering that Congress long ago delegated much of its decision-making power to the executive branch. The delegation was necessitated by the explosion in the size and scope of the federal government: there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for Congress to divvy up the gigantic sack of loot.

As an instructive article in the New York Times explains, eliminating earmarks won’t even stop policymakers from using their pull to steer federal funds toward parochial interests. Policymakers will just send letters to federal agencies (“lettermarking”) requesting targeted funding or call agencies (“phonemarking”) with their requests. Agency officials have an incentive to comply because policymakers determine their budgets.

Congressional Republicans have finally figured out that opposing earmarks is good politics, which explains the magic change in heart by earmarking kingpins like incoming House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY). But if Republicans are really serious about reining in the size and scope of the federal government, they’ll go after the parochial programs that make earmarking possible. Therefore, tea party types and others concerned with runaway federal spending would be wise to hold Republicans accountable for the federal spending ends rather than the means.

Update: Per a helpful note from my colleague Roger Pilon, I should clarify that the debate over the power of the executive versus that of the legislative branch to spend is constitutionally relevant – and important. Roger does a much better job of making my point in the following blog post:

To be sure, there’s enough mischief at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to go around, but it’s the growth of spending, most on matters unauthorized by the Constitution, that is far and away the larger problem. McConnell calls for congressional oversight “to monitor how the money taxpayers send to the administration is actually spent.” Far more important will be hearings to determine whether Congress has constitutional authority to appropriate money on any particular matter in the first place.

Thus, the new Congress needs to see through the false alternative the earmarks debate has engendered. At bottom, it’s not a question of whether Congress or the president shall decide. Rather, after administration input, all but ministerial spending decisions belong to Congress — as constrained by the Constitution. Thus, if the voice of the electorate is to be respected, new and old members alike need to attend first to their oath of office.