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Earmarks: Friend or Foe? September 28, 2009

Posted by Stephen Abott in Analysis.
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Few issues infuriate the American public like Congressional earmarks.  Whether real or imagined, many view earmarks as inherently unfair, a practice that redirects funding away from the most-deserving projects to those that somehow benefit Congressional members and/or their associates.  It is this perceived seediness that feeds our most basic fears and frustrations about Washington: backroom deals with lobbyists, nepotism, dishonestly, power, money, leverage, and government waste.  One need to only mention the Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” and visions of graft and unnecessary spending come to mind.  Thankfully, earmark oversight is a welcomed part of the American political landscape; the overall utility of earmarks, however, makes them a continued part of the legislative process.

While definitions vary, earmarks are unrequested funding for activities or programs in which the executive branch does not retain control over the process by which the money is rewarded to recipients.  Instead, Congress explicitly names the recipients or includes precise provisions so that only one recipient can qualify.  In practice, earmarks vary widely by committee and congressional chamber as an earmark in one bill may refer to a spending floor while in another may represent funds set aside for an individual project.

While earmarks may be proposed by the President or the Congress, it is this authority to direct or restrict spending that proponents cite as pivotal to the legislative process.  The most powerful tool Congress has is the power of the purse, and it has both the right and obligation to modify legislation as it sees fit. Earmarks are often the way the legislature pushes back against what it perceives as executive overreach.  Just recently, the F-22 fighter debate saw Representative Neil Abercrombie state that “Gates and the Pentagon need to learn who’s in charge, and the Congress is.”

Moreover, earmarks sometimes help congressmen reach compromise on difficult issues.  If many actors have stake in the success of the legislation, it is more likely to get the votes it needs to pass. For example, the annual DOD base budget generally includes earmarks for military bases in nearly every state, making it difficult for congressmen to vote the bill down. Moreover, earmarks are sometimes used to ensure bills with wide support pass the easily filibustered Senate.  This is exemplified by the regularly passed farm bill and its generous provisions for Midwestern farming states.

Equally important, congressmen know the needs of their districts and advocate for their constituents.   Legislators direct how some locally deployed resources are expended to the benefit of their state. While many deride earmarks as “pork” or “waste” the usefulness and efficacy of the spending is in the eyes of the beholder.  Some earmarks go towards funding research and operations at universities across the country, or support cancer research at medical centers, resulting in public goods that benefit the country as a whole. Earmarks fund useful projects that might not otherwise be funded and often go through a competitive process that stipulates some public review and ethics requirements.

Moreover, the monetary cost of earmarks is modest in comparison to overall spending. Taxpayers for Common Sense tallied more than $37 billion in earmarks in FY 2009. Total government spending for that year was above $3 trillion, making earmarks little more than 1 percent of total spending. While not trivial, earmarks are a relatively minor part of the federal budget and, as some say, a small cost of doing business in Washington.

Earmarks will continue to remain a part of the appropriations process, as does the oversight and reform that keeps them in check.

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