Earmarks are Just the Beginning

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BY TAXPAYERS FOR COMMON SENSEWe find ourselves at the beginning of the fight for spending transparency and accountability, not the end. Sure, this week the House effectively banned, at least temporarily, these special interest spending provisions and Senate Republicans joined them. But recent earmark reforms are just a beachhead.

A major reason we’ve focused on the euphemistically-titled “congressionally directed spending” has been our desire to make the federal budget more transparent and accountable to taxpayers. On this front, Congress has a long way to go.


But first – where are we on earmarks?

House Republican leaders made good on their promise. This week they voted to extend their existing moratorium on earmarks. Because they are the majority in the 112th Congress, they can exert their will over House Democrats, which means there will be no House-generated earmarks next year.

In a stunning shift, earlier this week Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) backed an earmark moratorium.

This was stunning because Sen. McConnell is a member of the spending committee and a long time practitioner of the dark art of earmarking. Far from a true convert, it’s pretty clear he just put his finger up to the political winds and decided he was better off backing the moratorium that Senate Republicans adopted. So we’ll have to see where that goes and whether there a few Republican earmark scofflaws in the Senate.

Also, while the Democratic leader, Sen. Reid (D-NV) gave a full-throated defense of earmarks, Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) joined Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) as an opponent of the wasteful practice.

Considering support was at least somewhat contrived, it’s reasonable to ask what do these moratoriums actually mean? 

Some lawmakers appear to be ready to weasel out, saying infrastructure spending shouldn’t be considered earmarks or they reserve the right to earmark in an emergency. For instance, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) recently said “I don’t believe that building roads and bridges and interchanges should be considered an earmark… There’s a big difference between funding a tea pot museum and a bridge over a vital waterway.” Odd choice of words, since the most notorious earmark of all – even more than the tea pot museum in North Carolina – was a bridge over a waterway. The Bridge to Nowhere!

In reality, infrastructure spending is what should absolutely not be earmarked. We need to make these spending decisions on merit – prioritizing needs, like safety and congestion and economic impact, rather than the muscle of the politicians involved.

Also boosters of earmarks often argue that eliminating them won’t save a dime. Poppycock.

Besides the opportunity cost of one lawmaker being able to waste tax dollars on a project in their district instead of funding a critical project somewhere else in the country, besides the corrupting aspect of earmarks and the pay-to-play system they helped create, besides the distraction earmarks represent from the oversight and accountability functions of Congress, Congressional earmarks cost $15.9 billion in FY10.

While some of that money would have been spent regardless, other agency budgets were boosted to accommodate a bulge of earmark spending. Eliminate those bulges in the budget and we will save billions. Not enough to balance the budget, but with a hole this big, every dime counts.

When the dust settles, federal spending will continue –earmarked or not.  But now that much of Congress won’t be spending their time and energy on the endless pursuit of earmarks, lawmakers and staff will have some extra time on their hands.

Our suggestion is they tackle establishing transparent systems that create criteria and metrics to evaluate projects, programs and initiatives being considered for federal spending. Then hold the administration accountable for how those spending decisions are made.