The Earmark Game

So Jim DeMint has gotten Mitch McConnell to cave on earmarks. Barack Obama, who’s been on the anti-earmark train since he was in the Senate, diggingly thanked McConnell for “joining” him in opposing earmarks. And now we even have Michele Bachmann, scourge of earmarkers, saying that when it comes to building a bridge in her district, well, that’s not an earmark.

Everyone is playing the anti-earmark game. But let’s not forget, Republicans or Democrats, that the whole earmarks story, as anything that has any real effect on the national fisc, is basically a crock.All earmarks do is let the Congress dictate how appropriated money is going to be spent. The key is appropriated money. Money that’s already raised and is going to be spent. The Congress dictates how some of it is going to be spent. If you get rid of earmarks no less money will be spent. The financial standing of the country will be unaffected. And in fact the amount of money tied to earmarks — even though it’s money that’s going to be spent anyway — is a minuscule part of the federal budget. So getting rid of earmarks is basically totally irrelevant when it comes to getting the country’s budgeting house in order.

Where earmarks do become an issue is when members of Congress don’t just put in an earmark dictating that say a bridge will be built in their hometown but dictate that a particularly company will get a contract to build this or that thing. That’s the kind of earmarking that exploded during the period of Republican rule of the Congress. Look back at the statistics and the evidence on this point is crystal clear. And it appealed to the highly transactional money culture that prevailed especially in the Hastert era in the House.

But the answer to that is coming up with guidelines and transparency that makes it much harder to get public money directly into the hands of campaign contributors. Something that is very doable.

Opponents of earmarks claim that even though the number of dollars involved are fairly trivial, earmarks nonetheless leverage vast amounts of government spending. So for instance, maybe Representative X votes for Health Care Reform or the stimulus because he or she gets to call in a few earmarks for his or her district. But there’s really no evidence this is true.

I can’t say I’m really going to get worked up if ‘earmarks’ are abolished. And placing limits on earmarks that go to private companies, as opposed to projects that can be bidded out is a real issue. But as a budgetary matter, it’s really pretty much a crock. It’s a showy way to pretend to get the country’s balance sheet in order when you really aren’t willing to do anything.