The Corner

Eliminating Earmarks is a Phony Issue

Americans — especially conservatives — are being taken with a fiscal sleight of hand. Rightly concerned about the future of our country and the out-of-control spending taking place in Washington, these concerned citizens are being duped by the earmark debate. Getting rid of earmarks does not save taxpayers any money, reduces transparency, and gives more power to the Obama administration.

A congressional earmark moratorium won’t save a single taxpayer dime. Proponents of the earmark ban like to say that a dollar cut is a dollar saved. Unfortunately, that’s just not true. For example, in 2009 the Senate performed the rare action of considering many appropriations bills individually rather than irresponsibly lumping them all into one large bill to consider at the end of the year. The value of considering these bills individually is that it gives senators the opportunity to exercise some oversight of government programs and to monitor how federal departments spend money. Senators could offer amendments to both cut spending and strike particular earmarks if they desired. From July to November that year, there were about 18 votes specifically targeting earmarks. All the amendments failed. But had they succeeded, they would not have reduced the overall amount of money being spent by the federal government. Instead of putting the money back into the pockets of the American people by reducing spending or shrinking the deficit, these efforts to eliminate earmarks would have put more money into the hand of President Obama by allowing his administration to spend the money as he saw fit. At the end of the day, none would have saved money. 

In a couple of cases, senators offered amendments to strike funding for C-17 airplanes or other specific military spending and return the money to the Department of Defense’s operation-and-maintenance account. In another case, members offered amendments to strike funding out of a program called “Save America’s Treasures” for specific art centers throughout the United States, but the money was simply shifted to allow bureaucrats at the National Park Service to spend it. In another case, a member offered an amendment to strike a variety of transportation projects in many states, only to redirect the spending to bureaucrats in the Federal Aviation Administration. I could go on and on.

Banning earmarks has significant unintended consequences. Proponents of the ban like to say that earmarking is bad policy. To say this is to say that it is bad policy to provide improved armor for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — which has saved lives — or that it is bad policy to have the Predator drone program that has been vital in the War on Terrorism. Both are examples of congressional earmarks that would have never been funded by any administration. An across-the-board ban has the unintended consequence of eliminating useful spending. To be clear, there are many spending proposals that should be defeated. But we should defeat them based on the substance, not simply because they are called earmarks. There are often bad ideas proposed that should not become law, but no one thinks we should ban all legislation.

Earmarks have been part of the congressional process since the founding of our country. As James Madison, the father of the Constitution viewed it, appropriating funds is the job of the legislature. Writing in the Federalist, he noted that Congress holds the power of the purse for the very reason that it is closer to the people. The words of Madison and Article 1 Section 9 of the Constitution say that authorization and appropriations are exclusively the responsibility of the legislative branch. Congress should not cede this authority to the executive branch.

Banning earmarks will result in less accountability and transparency. The flawed Obama stimulus bill famously did not contain a single congressional earmarks, yet, as we found out long after the fact, those tax dollars were spent on hundreds of frivolous items such as a clown show in Pennsylvania, studying the mating decisions of the female cactus bug, and a helicopter able to detect radioactive rabbit droppings, to name a few. What all of these have in common is that they were spent by presidential earmarks, not congressional earmarks. Similarly, as faceless bureaucrats in the executive branch have continually taken greater responsibility over federal expenditures, lobbyists are increasingly turning to them, not Congress, for money. Unlike congressional earmarks, which are posted online prior to the expenditure and approved by representatives who must face the voters, executive spending is in the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats, and we often do not find out about these expenditures until years after the fact.

Demagoguing earmarks provides cover for some of the biggest spenders in Congress. Congressional earmarks, for all their infamous notoriety, are not the cause of trillion-dollar federal deficits (of all the discretionary spending that took place in Washington last year, earmarks made up only 1.5 percent). Nor will an earmark moratorium solve the crisis of wasteful Washington spending run amuck. While anti-earmarkers bloviate about the billions spent through earmarks, many of them supported the trillions of dollars in extra spending for bailouts, stimulus, and foreign aid. Talk about specks versus planks! Over the course of the last several years, the overall number and dollar amount of earmarks has steadily decreased. During that same time, overall spending has ballooned by over $1.3 trillion. In reality, ballyhooing about earmarks has been used as a ruse by some to seem more fiscally responsible than they really are.

Let’s stop playing the earmark game, and, for the sake of our kids and grandkids, get serious about using real reforms to save this country from financial ruin.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R. Okla.) is rated the most conservative senator in 2009 by National Journal and most outstanding senator by Human Events.

-- Sen. James M. Inhofe (R. Okla.) is rated the most conservative senator in 2009 by National Journal and most outstanding senator by Human Events.


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