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Wonk Wars: What's So Bad About Earmarks?

True/False: Earmarks Are A Good Thing. Discuss!

Monday, October 04, 2010

Welcome to Wonk Wars, a weekly feature from It's A Free Country as part of the Brian Lehrer Show's 30 Issues in 30 Days. Early each week, we'll post one of those issues in the Wonk Wars sections of the website and invite two or more policy experts to start the discussion online, along with your input. Then, each Thursdays, the conversation continues on-air at the Brian Lehrer Show.

This Week's True/False: Earmarks Are A Good Thing

Opening statement from Tad DeHaven, budget analyst at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute.

If one is concerned about the size and scope of our federal government, then “earmarking” is a decidedly bad thing. Earmarks are provisions inserted into spending bills by legislators for specific projects in their home states. One problem with earmarks is that is that most of the projects they fund are properly the responsibility of state and local governments or the private sector, not the federal government. Another problem is that earmarks grease the skids for bigger government. Stuffing a piece of broader spending legislation with earmarks helps garner support for the underlying bill from the various members of Congress who believe they will politically benefit from the largesse being lavished upon their constituents.   

Proponents of earmarking often point to the fact that earmarked funds account for an extremely small portion of overall federal spending. While this is true, it is beside the point for the reasons cited above. However, the argument does raise a legitimate concern in that opponents of earmarking often fail to realize that the practice is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the problem of federal overspending. Therefore, opponents of earmarking should focus the bulk of their attention on eliminating the underlying programs from which earmarks are derived. For example, a shopping mall in Pennsylvania that receives earmarked funds represents an expenditure that would be just as egregious had the mall received the funds through the traditional bureaucratic process.

Opening statement from Gabriela Schneider of the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation.

We at the Sunlight Foundation are neither for nor against earmarks. However, we do feel strongly that Americans have the right to know where Congress plans to direct federal spending. Currently, there’s no easy way to see how earmarks are being requested and spent in the places we live.

That’s why we’re advocating that Congress pass the Earmark Transparency Act of 2010, a bipartisan bill introduced earlier this year in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. This landmark legislation vastly improves the way in which information about earmarks is disclosed. It also echoes what President Barack Obama called for in his State of the Union Address last January, by requiring a centralized, detailed, downloadable database that would track every earmark requested. 

Currently, earmark disclosures are scattered over more than 559 Web sites, including two-dozen Web sites maintained by the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees and the official site of each member of Congress. While it is possible for seasoned researchers to follow the money, constituents are still left in the dark.

This is a better alternative to the suggestions that earmarks be banned altogether or limited to non-profit entities. The problem with bans is that they’re easily circumvented in ways that aren’t entirely transparent. For instance, when he was a Delaware Senator, Vice President Joe Biden used to earmark funds for The University of Delaware’s Center for Composite Materials—a high tech research non-profit created by the school—to research, among other things, new types of armor for military vehicles. The research institute has a consortium of for-profit companies with which it works, including BEA Systems, a defense contractor that makes armored vehicles. So, eventually the tax dollars allocated by Congress would make their way to a for-profit group. Similarly, lawmakers could bypass a total earmark ban by pressuring federal agencies directly with phone calls or personal visits to request funds for pet projects in their districts. If we work towards a single point of online disclosure we would make earmarks truly transparent, and citizens could more easily judge the spending priorities of their elected lawmakers.

Statement from Steve Clemonsdirector of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and the man behind the popular political blog, The Washington Note.

I agree with much that Cato's Tad DeHaven and the Sunlight Foundation's Gabriela Schneider have to say about the downside of appropriations earmarks in Congress.  DeHaven thinks earmarks are a slippery slope to larger government, and Schneider, though neither for or against earmarks formally, says that the real issue is transparency.  Both of them are right to a degree - but they don't tell the entire story.

The system of political checks and balances between branches of government is complicated, often involving very technical levers in which one branch knocks back the intrusion of another.  That said, there is little doubt that over time Executive Branch powers have far exceeded the intentions of the founders and has emasculated the Congress and to a certain degree, the courts.

Earmarks - as disagreeable as they may be in securing pork for constituents against the broader perceived national good - are also a lever of Congressional power against an Executive Branch that is constantly trying to overrun and peripheralize the prerogatives and preferences of the US Senate and House of Representatives.  The Executive Branch would like nothing more than to fill in the details of spending within the large blocks of funds directed to agency objectives by Congress.

This simply isn't healthy for the country - and thus, while transparency is important, and yes, earmarks can have unintended consequences, overall - even as the process exists today - American interests are better served by having a Congress that assures its legislative leverage over the Executive Branch with earmarks I agree with much that Cato's Tad DeHaven and the Sunlight Foundation's Gabriela Schneider have to say about the downside of appropriations earmarks in Congress. DeHaven thinks earmarks are a slippery slope to larger government, and Schneider, though neither for or against earmarks formally, says that the real issue is transparency. Both of them are right to a degree - but they don't tell the entire story. I am going to take the position of arguing that earmarks are ultimately more in the national interest and in the interests of citizens than not for different reasons than my colleagues outline. The system of political checks and balances between branches of government is complicated, often involving very technical levers in which one branch knocks back the intrusion of another. That said, there is little doubt that over time Executive Branch powers have far exceeded the intentions of the founders and has emasculated the Congress and to a certain degree, the courts. Earmarks - as disagreeable as they may be in securing pork for constituents against the broader perceived national good - are also a lever of Congressional power against an Executive Branch that is constantly trying to overrun and peripheralize the prerogatives and preferences of the US Senate and House of Representatives. The Executive Branch would like nothing more than to fill in the details of spending within the large blocks of funds directed to agency objectives by Congress. This simply isn't healthy for the country - and thus, while transparency is important, and yes, earmarks can have unintended consequences, overall - even as the process exists today - American interests are better served by having a Congress that assures its legislative leverage over the Executive Branch with earmarks than not.

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Comments [17]

and oh, by the way, earmarks have always been used to hide pet projects. Excellent bill have been killed because a smart aleck aid decides to read the whole bill and ends up finding stuff that, when it comes to light, makes it impossible to defend the bill where they are inserted. So, it seems to me that the problem is transparency. But if they didn't want to hide it, there would be no earmarks...

Oct. 07 2010 02:03 PM

I found Mr. DeHaven's positions highly problematic and his overall comments denote a myopic vision of America that not only is scary but unconstitutional.
The Preamble says that the constitution was created in order to, among other things, "promote the general welfare" As I understand it, we can infer that roads, being the 1st step to communication among the states, would definitely be part of the general welfare, such as education, health care and defense. Furthermore, Article I section 8 says, among other things, that "...Congress shall have the Power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United State......to establish post offices and post roads;" Well, it seems to me, again, that the establishment of roads (post roads - communication, again) is clearly stated here. But, from my point of view, this is just a detail. What really worries me more is Mr. Dehaven's very limited view of what the United States is all about. It is not each man or State for him/herf/itself, but it is a collective society bound together by even more than just this incredible document which has, as one of its primary concerns, the promotion of the "general Welfare" for all its inhabitants. As a society, we progressed in the world to an exceptional place. It seems to me that recently there are voices clamoring against the federal government under erroneous assumptions. This reflects a regression in of our common identity, an idea that everyone should fend for himself and if you cannot, oh well, too bad ...an example is the recent event in Tennessee of a man's house burning down with the firefighters watching but not lifting a hose to fight the fire because the owner of the house had not paid $75 for fire protection! The house burned completely to the ground with 2 dogs and a cat inside dying in the fire. What kind of people do this? What kind of society is this? Certainly not an enlightened and evolved society. The scary part is that this slow erosion of our society and the ignorance of its members of their civic duties will lead us to failure.

Oct. 07 2010 01:32 PM
Bob from Pelham, NY

The Cato rep shows ignorance of history when he calls all Federal transportation projects unconstitutional. The first one, the National Road (a/k/a the Cumberland Road) connecting the Potomac and Ohio Rivers, was championed by George Washington as president and authorized by President Thomas Jefferson in 1806, even though all states would have to pay for a road mostly benefiting only a few. The issue was settled by Congress and the Founding Fathers over 200 years ago. (As an aside, Washington owned large tracts of wilderness land near the old Fort Necessity battle site in Pennsylvania, which coincidentally was on the final approved route. Some traditions endure.)

Oct. 07 2010 11:35 AM

Has this Ted person read the Preamble to the Constitution? They got it -- what's happened to us?

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Oct. 07 2010 11:28 AM
RLewis from the Bowery

These guy wants smaller govt without the earmarks, but I bet he's also in favor of the reduction of tax-deductible donations from the wealthy. If you don't want govt to provide funds, and you reduce incentives for others to provide funds, then where does this guy think the money should come from?????

Oct. 07 2010 11:27 AM
Marc from Brooklyn

The problem with earmarks -- at least as they're practiced in New York State -- is that they're not transparent. Various items, individually mostly small but large in the aggregate, are designated funds without public debate. Senator So-and-So just anonymously slips a "member item" onto to a bill, and "viola," money is granted to some generally unknown pet project. At its heart, it's undemocratic, in that it essentially cuts the public out of the debate, and as such, the practice should be halted.

Oct. 07 2010 11:26 AM
Leo In NYC

The choice between corrupt and self-interested federal spending and no federal spending seems like a false choice. The GOP's professed loathing of government makes it impossible for them to embrace technocracy, which is the real solution for a high-quality, functioning government. Congress always has the option of creating panels of experts to recommend spending choices, or creating non-partisan agencies to parcel out dollars to worthy projects. That they usually don't is at least as much a vice of conservatives as liberals. If GOPers really wanted government to function they'd find smart, need-based mechanisms to distribute spending, but they'd rather rail against corrupt, ineffective government while siphoning off cash to their districts.

Oct. 07 2010 11:23 AM
Frank from Manhattan

I've been to that Island in Alaska. The purpose of the bridge was primarily to connect the Ketchikan airport (on an island) to the mainland. Not a big airport, admittedly, but not completely absurd either.

Oct. 07 2010 11:22 AM

You know I am just getting tired of these extremists trying to dismantle what make this country work. So we're all going to become individually responsible for everything we need to make life function. Since when do we equate earmarks with maintaining the infrastructure or other basic societal needs. But it looks like we'll soon be living in the brave new world where government goes away and we're all children of Ayn Rand.

Oct. 07 2010 11:21 AM
Frank from Manhattan

Federal transportation planning is essential to a free market economy. History has shown that states will discriminate against each other economically if they can, and a favorite tactic is levying tarrifs on out-of-state shipping. Without a federal transportation scheme America would become balkanized.

Oct. 07 2010 11:19 AM
Fabio Girelli from Montclair

Give each Sen and Rep a fixed amount to spend in the respective state or district and let them make the calls.
The voters will decide if the money was spent wisely.

Oct. 07 2010 11:19 AM
RLewis from the Bowery

Hey, let's go with Ted's libertian plan. NYC would rule this country. and the square states that have no population and no tax base would stay as rural outposts of NOTHING!

Could that caller be more WRONG!

Oct. 07 2010 11:16 AM
Michelle from NYC

Alaska is the most federally supported state in the Union. Wasn't it Jon Stewart who showed a list of all the politicians who publicly denounced earmarks, but then voted for them in their states as they create jobs.

Oct. 07 2010 11:15 AM

BRIAN there was a ferry to no where before the bridge. the islanders were NOT isolated.

Oct. 07 2010 11:09 AM

" . . . first challenge is reaching agreement about what constitutes abuse. "

To the extent that any action by government is not attributable to a person it is an abuse.
At a time in the world when WikiLeaks has access to, and will publish, classified nation defense information - how can our national sources of information (a.k.a. "the media") fail to identify the legislators responsible for: specific earmarks; "secret" congressional "holds" on legislation and executive appointees; authorship of legislation favorable to specific interests. [Note to Senator McCain: Stop waiting to be elected to higher office. Identify the "earmark authors" now!]

Oct. 07 2010 10:54 AM
Alexandra from NYC

I thought earmarks were all bad until I became a member of a small non-profit organization. Without earmarks from city and state budgets, we don't get to do the projects we want. The donations we get don't even come close to covering what we strive to do.

Oct. 07 2010 10:44 AM
ericf

IMHO earmarks are useful but abuseable and the issue is not whether to get rid of them but how to limit the abuse without undermining the utility. first challenge is reaching agreement about what constitutes abuse.

Oct. 04 2010 11:53 AM

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