As Senate Republicans prepare to vote on an earmark moratorium, I would encourage my colleagues to consider four myths and four realities of the debate.
Myths of the earmark debate:
1. Eliminating earmarks does not actually save any money
This argument has serious logical inconsistencies. The fact is earmarks do spend real money. If they didn’t spend money, why defend them? Stopping an activity that spends money does result in less spending. It’s that simple. For instance, Congress spent $16.1 billion on pork in Fiscal Year 2010. If Congress does not do earmarks in 2011, we could save $16.1 billion. In no way is Congress locked into to shifting that $16.1 billion to other programs unless it wants to.
2. Earmarks represent a very tiny portion of the federal budget and eliminating them would do little to reduce the deficit
It’s true that earmarks themselves represent a tiny portion of the budget, but a small rudder can help steer a big ship, which is why I’ve long described earmarks as the gateway drug to spending addiction in Washington. No one can deny that earmarks like the Cornhusker Kickback have been used to push through extremely costly and onerous bills. Plus, senators know that as the number of earmarks has exploded so has overall spending. In the past decade, the size of government has doubled while Congress approved more than 90,000 earmarks.
Earmarks were rare until recently. In 1987, President Reagan vetoed a spending bill because it contained 121 earmarks. Eliminating earmarks will not balance the budget overnight, but it is an important step toward getting spending under control.
3. Earmarking is about whose discretion it is to make spending decisions. Do elected members of Congress decide how taxes are spent, or do unelected bureaucrats and Obama administration officials?
It’s true that this is a debate about discretion, but some in Congress are confused about discretion among whom. This is not a struggle between the executive branch and Congress but between the American people and Washington. Do the American people have the right to spend their own money and keep local decisions at the local level or does the federal government know best? Earmarks are a Washington-knows-best solution. An earmark ban would tell the American people that Congress gets it. After all, it’s their money, not ours.
An earmark moratorium would not result in Congress giving up one iota of its spending power. In any event, Republicans should be fighting over how to cut government spending, not how to divide it up.
4. The Constitution gives Congress the responsibility and authority to earmark
Nowhere does the Constitution give Congress the authority to do earmarks. The concept of earmarking appears nowhere in the enumerated powers or anywhere else in the Constitution. The so-called “constitutional” argument earmarks is from the same school of constitutional interpretation that led Elena Kagan to admit that Congress had the authority to tell the American people to eat their fruits and vegetables every day. That school, which says Congress can do whatever it wants, gave us an expansive Commerce Clause, Obamacare, and a widespread belief among members of Congress that the “power of the purse” is the power to pork.
Earmark defenders are fond of quoting Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution which says, “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.” They also refer to James Madison’s power of the purse commentary in Federalist 58. Madison said the “power of the purse may, in fact, be the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people.”
Yet, earmark proponents ignore the rest of the Constitution and our founders’ clear intent to limit the power of Congress. If the founders wanted Congress to earmark funds to specific recipients, micromanage American society, and ride roughshod over state and local government they would have given Congress that authority in the enumerated powers. They clearly did not.
Our founders anticipated earmark-style power grabs from Congress and spoke against such excess for the ages. James Madison, the father of the Constitution said, “With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”
Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison, spoke directly against federally-funded local projects. “[I]t will be the source of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get the most who are the meanest.” Jefferson understood that earmarks and coercion would go hand in hand.
Also, if earmarks were a noble constitutional tradition, how did we thrive for 200 years without an earmark favor factory in Congress?
Finally, for those worried about ceding constitutional authority to the executive branch, I would respectfully remind them that the president has zero authority to spend money outside of the authority Congress gives him. The way to hold the executive branch accountable is to spend less and conduct more aggressive oversight. Earmarks are a convoluted way for Congress to try to regain authority they have already ceded to the executive branch through bad legislation. The fact is there is nothing an earmark can do that can’t be done more equitably and openly through a competitive grant process.
Beyond these myths, I would encourage members to consider the following realities.
1. Earmarks are a major distraction
Again, earmarks not only do nothing to hold the executive branch accountable — by out-porking the president — but take Congress’ focus away from the massive amount of waste and inefficiency within federal agencies. In typical years, the number of earmark requests outnumbers oversight hearings held by the Appropriations Committee by a factor of 1,000 to 1. Instead of processing tens of thousands of earmark requests the Senate should increase the number of oversight hearings from a few dozen to hundreds. The amount of time and attention that is devoted to the earmark chase is a scandal waiting to be exposed.
2. This debate is over among the American people and the House GOP
If any policy mandate can be derived from the election it is to spend less money. Eliminating earmarks is the first step on that path. The House GOP has accepted that mandate. The Senate GOP now has to decide whether to ignore not only the American people but their colleagues in the House. The last thing Senate Republicans should be doing is legislative gymnastics to get around the House GOP earmark ban.
3. Earmarking is bad policy
In recent years the conventional wisdom that earmarks create jobs has been turned on its head. The Obama administration’s stimulus bill itself, which is arguably a collection of earmarks approved by Congress, proves this point. Neither Obama’s stimulus nor Republican stimulus — GOP earmarks — is very effective at creating jobs.
Harvard University conducted an extensive study this year of how earmarks impact states. The researchers expected to find that earmarks drive economic growth but found the opposite.
“It was an enormous surprise, at least to us, to learn that the average firm in the chairman’s state did not benefit at all from the unanticipated increase in spending,” said Joshua Coval, one of the study’s authors. The study found that as earmarks increase capital investment and expenditures by private businesses decrease, by 15 percent specifically. In other words, federal pork crowds out private investment and slows job growth. Earmarks are an odd GOP infatuation with failed Keynesian economics that hurts local economies.
Earmarks also crowd out funding for higher-priority items. Transportation earmarks are a good example. Pork projects like the Bridge to Nowhere and bike paths divert funds from higher priority projects according to a 2007 Department of Transportation inspector general report. Thousands of bridges continue to be in disrepair across America in part because Congress has taken its eye off the ball and indulged in parochial spending.
4. Earmarking is bad politics
If the Senate GOP wants to send a signal that they don’t get it and are not listening they can reject an earmark moratorium. For Republicans, earmarks are the ultimate mixed message. We’ll never be trusted to be the party of less spending while we’re rationalizing more spending through earmarks. The long process of restoring fiscal sanity in Washington begins with saying no to pork.
— Sen. Tom Coburn represents the state of Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate.