Nick Anderson
Nick Anderson

The craving that won't go away

| Bertrand Russell said of obscenity, "It is obvious that 'obscenity' is not a term capable of exact legal definition; in the practice of the Courts, it means 'anything that shocks the magistrate.'" Earmarks clearly fall into the same category, for what they really amount to is spending that offends your own political sensibilities.

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Real earmarks

John McCain tried to make earmarks the centerpiece of his campaign, and we see how well that worked out. Bobby Jindal tried to carry on that tradition in his response to Obama's address to Congress. The stimulus bill, he complained, "is larded with wasteful spending. It includes ... $140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.' Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, DC." Alaskans, Hawaiians, and others who live near active volcanos immediately took exception, noting that volcano monitoring is as critical to their safety as hurricane monitoring is to Louisianans. Oops!

Therein lies the rub: Spending that is frivolous and wasteful to one person can be essential and justified to another. It's easy to make fun of particular spending, especially if you are ignorant about it, as Sarah Palin found out during the campaign when she poked fun at research on fruit flies, only to find out that such research has the potential to unlock the mysteries of autism, one of those "special needs" that Sarah claimed to champion. Oops!

As I see it, earmarks serve two basic purposes. First, they are one of the means by which elected representatives can "bring home the bacon" to their constituents, securing funding for projects that are important locally but pale in significance in comparison to the needs of the country as a whole. Second, they are an irresistible and easy way to "score points" in the great sound-bite competition.

The Republicans are demonstrating the second purpose now, using the earmarks in George W Bush's last budget bills to cudgel Obama about the head and shoulders. However, offered the opportunity by John McCain to turn their indignation to action by stripping all earmarks out of the current spending bill, purportedly some $7.7B of the $410B bill, senators rose to defend those same earmarks, soundly defeating McCain's amendment 63 to 32, thereby validating the truism that politicians just love to hate earmarks, as long the earmarks are not their own.

So, let's admit that there can be merit in earmarks, funding worthwhile projects beyond local resources or that inevitably lose out when prioritized in the big picture. Representatives and senators are supposed to look out for the interests of their constituents and have an inherent need to prove their worth to secure re-election.

If you add up all the earmarks that make their way into the many funding bills passed by Congress, the amount of money can sound staggering — millions and billions! But in an economy and budget the size of ours, they amount to a very small percentage of the total, less than 1% according to a 2008 New York Times article. Nevertheless, they have "incalculable political value. Congressional leaders award or withhold them to reward or punish lawmakers. Incumbents like to use federal money to curry favor with donors and constituents."

That being the case, let's legitimize earmarks. Let's create a budget category for congressional discretionary spending, say 1% of the total, and along with the other budget bills, have one called the Omnibus Earmark Spending Bill. Each senator and representative can "spend" an allotment of pork — earmarks by any other name — on any projects they want, with two provisos: First, the beneficiaries of those earmarks must be made public and therefore subject to the scrutiny of those who voted for or against them. A little sunshine is always a good thing. Second, other spending bills must be free of such earmarks.

This would be a win-win: politicians would have an overt way to direct funding to projects they deem worthwhile, and it would take away usefulness of earmarks as political ammunition. With the playing field leveled, maybe they could get down to the business of taking care of the people's business.

In opposition to the proposal, the moral hazard objection could be raised: we would be rewarding bad behavior. That would be a good argument if we agreed that earmarks were bad behavior, but if we acknowledge that earmarks serve a useful purpose, then it's not bad behavior. An argument could also be made that it would be unenforceable. It could be difficult, indeed, for the earmark habit is known to be powerfully addictive. On the other hand, bringing the earmarks out into the light of day — beneficiary and sponsor — could have a most salutary, compensating effect.

Last updated on Jul 16, 2016

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