The Five Weakest Arguments against an Earmark Ban

by Brian Riedl

House Republicans are likely to follow Senate Republicans in banning earmarks. Too many earmarks are wasteful, unnecessary, and determined more by committee assignments and campaign contributions than by merit. Yet earmark defenders have offered five weak arguments:

1) “It’s only $16 Billion.” Since when is $16 billion too small of a budget cut to bother enacting? In a Congress that refuses to cut anything at all, $16 billion would represent the largest single spending cut since 1997. Yes, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid contain the largest potential savings, yet those major reforms will not happen overnight. It’s silly to suggest that the thousands of smaller programs comprising the other half of the federal budget are too small to bother cutting in the meantime.

2) “Cutting earmarks doesn’t automatically cut spending.” By itself, ending earmarks may shift the same spending authority to federal agencies. Yet Congress could easily reduce program budgets by the amount typically earmarked. Furthermore, ending earmarks frees lawmakers to vote against big spending bills, and also focus more on government oversight.

3) “Ending earmarks will merely shift spending power to faceless bureaucrats.” This is a false choice. The real question is why anyone in Washington should be deciding where to build a streetlight or a YMCA. Congress could simply distribute program funds by formula to state and local governments, which are in a much better position than anyone in D.C. to determine local needs anyway.

4) “The Constitution requires earmarks.” Congress’s responsibility over the “power of the purse” does not justify their micromanaging every government grant. Nor does responsible lawmaking, as envisioned by the founders, include taxing working Americans to earmark funds to tattoo-removal clinics.

5) “Earmarking has a long history.” While earmarks have always existed, they have traditionally been rare. Between 1996 and 2005, annual appropriations earmarks soared from 958 to 13,997, before settling around 10,000. The current amount, cost, and lawmaker focus on earmarks is truly unprecedented in American history.

Brian Riedl is Grover M. Hermann fellow in federal budgetary affairs at the Heritage Foundation.