Lend Me Your Earmarks

Let’s stop pretending earmarks have anything to do with deficit reduction.

US senator James Inhofe.
Sen. James Inhofe 

When politicians change their minds, they usually say they’re acting on principle. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did the opposite. Breaking with his longtime pro-appropriations stance, McConnell came out in favor of a moratorium on earmarks. But he hasn’t changed his mind—he’s merely bowing to political pressure.

“Make no mistake,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight.”

Translation: Earmarks are a good idea, but most people don’t get it, so I’ll oppose them.

Earmarks have long been a flashpoint in the debate over cutting the deficit. Now they’re becoming a litmus test. Republicans are poised to take a closed-door vote on Tuesday on whether to voluntarily ban earmarks for two years. The debate has split the caucus. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma argues that earmark money gets spent anyway and that the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse. Sen. Tom Coburn, his fellow Oklahoman, shoots back that Congress can lower spending by reducing earmarks and that “[n]owhere does the Constitution give Congress the authority to do earmarks.” Coburn also says that any Republican who opposes the ban can expect a primary challenge.

McConnell’s switch may have been politically savvy—now is no time to cross the Tea Parties—but it doesn’t make much policy sense, for several reasons:

Earmarks don’t cost that much. Politicians talk about earmarks not because they’re big, but because they’re small. Voters have trouble wrapping their heads around $3 trillion in entitlement spending. But a $2 million “pork” project like a fruit laboratory in West Virginia is easy to understand—and to mock. The problem is, earmarks cost only about $16 billion a year, or about 1 percent of the annual federal budget. That’s not nothing. But reining in a national debt that grows by $4 billion every day will take a lot more than that.

Earmarks have almost nothing to do with deficit growth. Look at deficit projections, and you’ll see that the primary cause of growth is health care spending. The second biggest cause is Social Security. Discretionary spending, of which earmarks are the teeniest fraction, doesn’t even make the list. And even if it did:

Cutting earmarks doesn’t reduce spending. Most earmarks get tacked onto large spending bills with defined budgets, like the annual appropriations bill. If you take out the quarter-million dollars for turtle observation funding, you don’t save that money—it just gets spent elsewhere within the bill. “Earmarks aren’t about increasing the size of the pie,” says Ryan Alexander of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “They’re about how you divide the pie.”

Coburn pushed back today, arguing that Congress could stop the White House from reappropriating money from cut stimulus projects. “The only reason they do it now is that we allow it,” Coburn told my Slate colleague David Weigel. But in reality, there’s no way for Congress to save that money unless it explicitly reduces the size of the bill’s budget—which it could do regardless of whether the bill contains earmarks or not. “Just saying, There are no earmarks in this bill, doesn’t mean the cost will be any lower as a consequence,” says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.

Earmarks are actually pretty transparent. Time was, congressional appropriators would simply cut checks for their favorite local programs without any accountability until the program was under way. These days, the system is a lot more transparent. In many states, would-be earmark recipients have to go through a competitive process similar to grant-writing—fill out an application, make the case to legislative aides, and undergo vetting. Their name and that of the sponsoring member of Congress is then attached to the earmark. There are still some “undisclosed” earmarks, but far fewer than in the past.

Earmarks are responsive to local needs. There are three ways spending decisions get made. One is by formula—states and regions receive money according to, say, population. Another method is competitive grants. This money is distributed for a specific purpose, such as flood prevention in New Orleans. The last method is earmarks—giving cash to a particular individual or organization in a way that circumvents the usual merit-based process. Earmarking may be more arbitrary, but advocates say it’s faster and better suited to local needs. For example, a member of Congress might have a better sense of who can best prevent flooding in New Orleans than a formula developed on the federal level. Of course, this process can be a recipe for corruption, as one person’s “understanding of local needs” is another person’s cronyism.

Earmarks are tools for compromise. Anytime you need 218 people—a majority in the House—to agree on something, you need to make compromises. Sometimes you can make trades with pieces of the legislation at hand. Other times you need to promise things that fall outside its purview. That’s where earmarks come in. One lawmaker might oppose the employer mandate in the health care bill, but others will support the bill only if it includes the employer mandate. Negotiators therefore have to offer unrelated perks, like money for military research or a new football stadium. It’s ugly, but that’s how politics works.

There are plenty of downsides to earmarks. They favor politicians with clout—particularly committee members—over less powerful ones. They reward seniority. They can be arbitrary. But those drawbacks have nothing to do with deficit reduction. If Congress spent its time discussing substantial cuts instead of tiny ones, it might have balanced the budget by now.

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