Capitol Idea: In Defense of Earmarks

Now that House Republicans have voted to repeal healthcare reform and moved on to proposing deep, deep cuts to the federal budget, you’re likely to hear more about the supposed evils of “earmarks.”

Don’t believe it.

Republicans, after all, just went through the exercise of reading the U.S. Constiution on the House floor.

Article I, Section 8 clearly gives Congress the power of the purse. So-called earmarks—steering federal funds to specific projects back home—simply are an extension of this constitutionally vested power.

Republican Sen. Dick Lugar understands this, and he is absolutely correct when he says that “eliminating earmarks cuts no spending.”

If you think of the federal budget as a pie, earmarks don’t by themselves influence the size of the pie, but merely are a means of dividing it up.

And earmarks are an entirely democratic, and accountable, means of splitting the federal pie around the nation.

The way most politicians act these days, Americans could be forgiven if they mistakenly think the job of being a member of Congress consists entirely of voting on legislation and preening for the cameras.

The truth is that lawmakers perform another important, if less glamorous, function, that of constituent service. (Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was carrying out just this kind of role when she was gunned down this month.)

That means lawmakers listen to the needs of the folks at home to represent those needs back in Washington.

So when mayors, town councils, or other local officials identify a need—such as an old bridge which requires repair, a lake or bay that needs cleaning up, or a local police department in need of new gear—their federal representatives in Congress rightfully seek funding to help pay for it.

It’s striking to me that so many conservatives oppose earmarks, because this apportionment of funds clearly is closest to the taxpayer in terms of accountability. A taxpayer or voter can track a chain of accountability that not only includes the senator or representative making the earmark, but often all the way through a state’s governor and local elected officials who first make the request.

The key, of course, is for the earmarking process to be open and transparent—just the way Senator Lugar and others advocate.

It’s fairly common practice these days for lawmakers to make public their earmark proposals on their congressional websites, there for any interested taxpayers to see.

The alternative, of course, is to abandon earmarks, leaving more funding decisions to the managers of programs in the federal agencies.

To be fair, most such managers with such authority seek to use it wisely, often making their decisions based on strenuous competitive programs, or by expert peer-review.

Lugar calls such an approach nothing less than a surrender of constitutional authority.

The administrative approach also centralizes power in Washington, which I thought, is what the tea party people were against.

To my mind, however honestly and rigorously federal managers seek to apportion funding, they aren’t as directly accountable to the taxpayer as members of Congress are through direct election.

Earmark opponents, of course, love to point to the more ridiculous earmarks, such as the famous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, which carried a price tag of nearly $400 million.

No decision-making ever carried out by human beings, any human beings, is, frankly, without some fault.

In the end, though, that Alaska bridge earmark couldn’t stand up to the smell test and Congress pulled its funding. And isn’t that what accountability is supposed to be about?

So let’s have a grand debate about the federal budget. But let’s forget this foolishness about blaming earmarks, which actually are the most constitutional means of dividing up whatever size federal pie we end up having.

Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article was first published as In Defense of Earmarks on Blogcritics.


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