Banning Earmarks Effective or Mostly for Show?

Yes, it’s theoretically possible that congressional leaders will use earmarks to help pass legislation shrinking the burden of government. It’s also possible that I’ll play centerfield next year for the Yankees. But I’m not holding my breath for either of these things to happen.

Last but not least, earmarks are utterly corrupt. The fact that they are legal does not change the fact that they finance a racket featuring big payoffs to special interests, who give big fees to lobbyists (often former staffers and Members), who give big contributions to politicians. Everyone wins…except taxpayers.

This is one of the many reasons why I did this video a couple of years ago with the simple message that big government means big corruption.

Earmarks Are the Gateway Drug to Big Government Addiction,” by Daniel J. Mitchell, Cato @ Liberty, November 22, 2010

Creative Commons License photo credit: Sjors Provoost

The idea is rapidly spreading that a ban on earmarks doesn’t affect spending, since earmarks are a way of distributing what’s already been appropriated.

This is just true enough to be clever, and marks the speaker as being more sophisticated than those Tea Party rubes. But it’s basically false, for three reasons.

First, it is more expensive to do things inefficiently than to do things efficiently.
. . .
Second, bills often emerge out of House-Senate committees with higher appropriations levels that have the express aim of smoothing passage with earmarks.

But third, and most important: the earmarking members of Congress are the same people who set the appropriations level.

Earmarks,” by Jacob Levy, November 18, 2010

But much of the public debate has focused on reducing government spending and how getting rid of earmarks will save money. Republicans who announced their bans (which are voluntary and have some big loopholes) claimed this will help the balance the budget. In truth, it won’t save a dime.

That’s because the earmarks do not add money – they simply direct money that is already being spent. The $16 billion dollars in last year’s federal budget for earmarks (less than 1 percent of the total budget) would not have been saved without the earmarks. The same amount of money would have been spent to build roads and bridges, fund defense projects and schools and all the other things the government does. The only difference is that the administration would decide the specifics of how the money was spent instead of members of Congress doing it.

The earmark debate is important and it certainly carries some potent symbolism, but if Congress wants to cut spending, this isn’t going to do it.

That Earmarks Ban? Mostly For Show,” by Bob Fuss, CBS News, November 19, 2010

Although earmarks are a small part of the budget, they dominate some aspects of spending. The Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation and the Defense Department’s research, development and testing operations are predominantly funded by congressional and presidential earmarks, as are some other areas of the federal bureaucracy.

For most of the federal government, spending is allocated by formulas or competitions designed to spread the wealth and fund the best projects. But the Army Corps’ budget for building levees and dredging waterways, for example, goes to Capitol Hill as a long list of projects selected by the president. White House officials don’t consider those earmarks; budget watchdogs and many members of Congress do.

GOP Earmark Ban Shifts Clout,” by Jonathan Weisman, The Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2010

First, earmarks are largely irrelevant to balancing the budget. The $16.5 billion Congress spent on earmarks in fiscal year 2009 sounds like a lot, but leaves a minuscule footprint – about 1 percent of 2009’s $1.4 trillion deficit. Those seriously concerned about deficits should look elsewhere for meaningful spending reductions.

Second and more important, why would conservatives in Congress unilaterally offer to limit a constitutionally delegated authority for nothing in return? The founders’ Constitution vested the power of the purse in the legislature to check presidential power. Constitutionalists of all persuasions should support the retention of earmarks.

Presidential budgets do not descend to Congress from Mount Sinai. Nor does the Office of Management and Budget – the White House arm responsible for producing the president’s annual budget for Congress to review – make disinterested assessments of the nation’s needs. This budget reaches Capitol Hill after months of policy debates, political infighting and pleading by federal agencies. So it would be accurate to regard the White House budget as a compendium of presidential earmarks. There are, after all, specific beneficiaries of the president’s proposals.

A lobbyist’s defense of earmarks: They make the government work,” by Mark Greenberg, The Washington Post, November 21, 2010

Some in Congress, still feeling the heat from the elections this month, vow to follow through on getting rid of “earmarks,” which is Washington jargon for “OK, I’ll support this highway bill, which is good for the country, but I need a new bridge here and a new road there back in my home state.” Which is how politics have been done since roughly the beginning of time.
. . .
That’s micromanaging, or it’s pure politics, or it’s reasonably looking out for the folks back home on a legitimately needed project that just can’t get on Washington’s do-list otherwise. It just depends on your perspective.

Oh, one more thing. How much do we save if we ban earmarks? Not one dime. The money is either directed to project A by your congressman or to project B by the Department of Whatever. It gets spent either way. That part isn’t being debated.

Our Opinion: Doling out our cash,” by The Examiner, November 18, 2010

But hold off the celebration of this bipartisan love: A ban on earmarks will have little, if any, impact on overall spending. The effect will be to shift spending authority from Congress to the White House, and to throw some symbolic red meat to those calling for less spending overall.

Earmarks — originally an actual mark farmers put on their pigs’ ears to identify them at market — now refer to spending items placed into the budget by individual members of Congress.

Earmark reform won’t dent the deficit,” Star-Ledger Editorial Board,, November 17, 2010

But Bennett, one of the Senate’s more prolific practitioners of the tactic, says people don’t understand that with earmarks, members of Congress determine where money already in the budget should be spent — they are not spending additional money.

Rooting out earmarks allows the executive branch to determine where that money goes.

Bennett: Earmark ban good politics, bad policy,” by Matt Canham, The Salt Lake Tribune, November 17, 2010

“Earmarks are not “new” money,” LaForge said in his statement. “They only direct where the money will be spent.

“Essentially, they are directives from Congress on how taxpayers’ dollars should be spent, rather than allowing executive branch agencies to make all the decisions. The same amount of dollars will still be on the table and will be spent.”

LaForge issues statement on earmarks,” Editor’s Notebook by Ross Reily, November 17, 2010

Despite their claims, the Republicans’ ban on earmarks won’t stop lawmakers from steering taxpayers’ dollars to pet projects. And it will have little if any effect on Washington’s far graver problem — the gigantic budget deficit.

FACT CHECK: Ban on pet projects mostly symbolic,” by Alan Fram, Associated Press, November 19, 2010

The ban itself, however, will barely dent the federal deficit, potentially hands more spending power to the Obama administration and threatens Charleston port funding crucial to the state’s international trade, say some opposing voices.

DeMint has huge reserves of conservative support that give him a measure of freedom when it comes to pushing through a spending issue over Republican leadership in Washington and big business interests in South Carolina, who will have to “swallow hard” and find a way to work with him, said John Simpkins, a professor at the Charleston School of law and political expert.

“He’s got votes,” Simpkins said. “Typically, you court business interests to get money to get votes and if you’ve got votes, you can skip the middle man.”

Still, the issue is “more smoke than fire,” he said, because earmarks make up 1 percent of the federal budget and represent money that’s already appropriated. To truly eliminate the spending, Simpkins said, Congress would also have to pass a measure to cut that 1 percent from federal agency budgets, with a miniscule impact on the deficit.

What’s more likely is that the move will simply cede the spending decisions to federal agencies headed by Obama appointees, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Earmark ban a high point for Jim DeMint,” by Ben Szobody, Greenville Online, November 17, 2010

One interest group is very upset about Senator Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) plan to force a vote in the Senate Republican Conference for a two year earmark moratorium — Lobbyists. According to The Hill, the lobbying group that represents lobbyists are very angry and worried that the easy money days of earmarking for dollars is over. Yes, even lobbyists have lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

Lobbyists Upset About Demint Earmark Ban,” by Brian Darling, RedState, November 14, 2010

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