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Earmarks to Continue… As They Should

By Tom Watson on March 14, 2007No Comment

GovernmentViewpoint: Earmarks to Continue… As They Should
By: Mark McIntyre, 3/14/2007


To paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of congressional earmarks has been greatly exaggerated.  Earmarks, those non-competitive, congressionally approved grants so tirelessly (and hypocritically) criticized by the Executive Branch, will return in this year’s appropriations bills.

And they should.  Earmarks are good.

In January, the Congress passed new earmark disclosure rules.  That’s good, too.

The new rules are designed to cast more sunlight on the earmarking process.  Sunlight is one of the world’s most powerful disinfectants.  (Every one of my clients’ funded projects looks better at high noon than it does at midnight.)

The new rules add four requirements to the earmarking process.  First, Members of Congress must put their names next to the earmarks they place in appropriations bills.  Second, Members of Congress must provide a written statement describing the purpose of the earmark.  Third, requests for earmarks must include certifications that the provisions will not benefit lawmakers or their spouses.  Finally, the bills must be available to be read 48 hours before they are to be voted upon. 

(By the way, many Members of Congress already post their earmarks on their web sites for all to see.  Why?  Because they are proud of them!)

If these new rules separate the wheat from the chaff when determining what gets funded and what doesn’t, they will have served their purpose well.

Contrary to most media reports, 99% of earmarks fund worthy initiatives, not so-called “pork.”  Earmarks fund badly needed road, water, sewer, and economic development projects for municipalities.  Earmarks support charities that help our neediest citizens.  Earmarks pay for innovative educational initiatives at every level from elementary schools to research institutions.

In fact, an earmark funded the much-heralded Iraq Study Group Report last year.

Chances are an earmark has helped pay for a program or a facility that you and your children enjoy in your community.  In most cases, there were no competitive federal programs available to fund these facilities and programs.  That’s one reason earmarks have proliferated — they are often the most efficient, or only, way to fund a local need!

Recent media attention has made earmarking the most famous legislative process that no one — at least in the media — seems to understand. 

The urban legend is that earmarks constitute wasteful spending that adds to the federal budget.  Wrong.  Earmarks are carved out of pre-determined spending ceilings for each of the 12 appropriations bills.

Eliminating earmarks would not save the federal Treasury or the taxpayers one dime.  That’s not theoretical, it’s fact.  The FY06 Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Bill was negotiated and passed without earmarks.  Savings to the taxpayer: zero.  The $602 billion contained in that bill simply flowed to the agencies where bureaucrats decided how to allocate the dollars.

The real debate over earmarks is about who gets to spend our taxpayer dollars, not how much.  Practically speaking, our Founding Fathers settled that debate when they gave the Congress the sole power of the federal purse under Article I of our Constitution.

Presidents, OMB Directors, Cabinet secretaries and agency bureaucrats hate earmarks because they limit their budgetary discretion.

During my lifetime, many presidential candidates have pledged, “Give me the line-item veto and I will balance the budget.”  It is a guaranteed applause line.  However, the rhetoric does not jibe with reality.

If the goal is to rein in federal spending, earmarks are the wrong place to start.  Discretionary spending comprises less than one-third of the federal budget, and Member earmarked projects constitute just a small percentage of the total discretionary budget.

Earmarks do not represent a rounding error.  They do not even constitute budget crumbs.  They are budget dust.  Yet, it’s a noble endeavor for municipalities and worthy not-for-profits to seek this pittance.  Why?  Because these dollars, in the right hands, fund badly needed local projects and transform the lives of the poor.

This spring and summer, as the Congress begins to pass the FY08 appropriations bills with earmarks, I hope more sunlight gets shed on the facts about earmarks, not the myths.

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