The Corner

Bad Arguments for Earmarks, Good Arguments against Them

In response to the argument that earmarks don’t actually increase spending, Jacob Levy has made a case that earmarks do: first, because diverting money to wasteful programs means that “all the needs that weren’t met this year will arise again next year”; second, because earmarks bills often emerge out of House-Senate committees with higher appropriations levels; and third, because the earmarking members of Congress are the same powerful committee members who set the appropriations level, and “the knowledge that they were going to have a chance to start shoveling pork a little bit later in the process affected how much they appropriated at the beginning.”

Also, who remembers this interesting working paper by three Harvard economists on what happens to a state when one of its senators becomes chair of a powerful committee? First, it causes the value of earmarks to the state to increase by almost 50 percent; second, it depresses private capital investment and R&D spending in the state. In other words, earmarks crowd out the private sector.

And if you’re still not convinced that earmarks are harmful, remember what Cato’s Dan Mitchell pointed out: “Earmarks are utterly corrupt. The fact that they are legal does not change the fact that they finance a racket featuring big payoffs to special interests, who give big fees to lobbyists (often former staffers and Members), who give big contributions to  politicians. Everyone wins … except taxpayers.”

One of the things I find most disturbing about earmarks is how they contribute to vote-trading between members, which probably increases spending significantly, too. My guess is that fewer bills would go through if lawmakers had to get their colleagues to vote yes based purely on bills’ merits. Economist Thomas Stratmann of George Mason University looked at this question in a recent paper, and he concludes that earmarks are what “grease the wheels on the Washington big money train.”

He also shows another reason earmarks are so popular with members of Congress: They help get them reelected. Apparently, “a 100-percent increase in a lawmaker’s earmarks equates to between 4.1 percent and 5.7 percent increase in vote share.”

Finally, here is an interesting new study by Cato’s Brandon Arnold that looks at the disparity between earmark-donor states and earmark-beneficiary states. There’s a good table indicating which states are which.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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