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.

Most Popular

White House

For Democrats, the Party’s Over

If the Democrats are really tempted by impeachment, bring it on. Since the day after the 2016 election they have been threatening this, placing their chips on the Russian-collusion fantasy and then on the phantasmagoric charade of obstruction of justice. The attorney general accurately gave the ingredients of the ... Read More
PC Culture

TV Before PC

Affixing one’s glance to the rear-view mirror is usually as ill-advised as staring at one’s own reflection. Still, what a delight it was on Wednesday to see a fresh rendition of “Those Were the Days,” from All in the Family, a show I haven’t watched for nearly 40 years. This time it was Woody Harrelson ... Read More