n April 1, Richard Cowan of Reuters reported that some House Republicans are warming to the idea of bringing back “earmarks” in appropriations bills. It was not an April Fools’ joke.
Since the mid-2000s, the term earmark has become inextricably associated with pork barrel spending and hence government waste. And, indeed, it was a problem. According to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, the number of earmarks rose from 4,326 in Bill Clinton’s last year to 13,997 in 2005 under George W. Bush and a Republican Congress.
Conservatives became very agitated by this burst of pork under the allegedly frugal Republicans, who constantly claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility. This eventually led to reforms that sharply cut back on the number of earmarks, which fell to just 2,658 in 2007. Under the Democrats, who have never been ideologically opposed to earmarks, the number jumped to 9,129 in 2010, the latest year available.
However, the number of earmarks is not an especially meaningful way of looking at them; what really matters is the amount of money spent. In 2005, the peak year, $27.3 billion was appropriated for earmarks. Even in 2007, the recent low year, $13.2 billion was spent. In 2010, $16.5 billion went for earmarks.
While these numbers may sound large, they are in fact a drop in the bucket in terms of the budget as a whole. In 2005, earmarks constituted just 1.1 percent of federal spending; in 2010, that was down to just 0.5 percent. Earmarks are nothing more than a rounding error in a budget of almost $4 trillion.
Some conservatives argue that while earmarks may be small in dollar terms, they leverage much more by being the grease that provides votes for bigger spending programs. There is some truth in this, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Congressman Steve LaTourette (R-OH) explains in the Reuters article, the giving and withholding of earmarks is an essential tool of party discipline. Take it away, and the House leadership has difficulty finding 218 votes for anything.
“If a member of Congress agrees with 90 percent of a pending bill but is ‘uncomfortable’ with the other 10 percent, sometimes taking care of your district [with earmarks] made up for that 10 percent,” La Tourette said.
The late political scientist James Q. Wilson, a prominent conservative, made the same point some years ago, arguing in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that earmarks are simply a normal part of the political process. “Vote trades,” he said, “are called pork barrels or logrolling, but such trades are essential to finding some way to balance competing interests, each of which is defended by a legislator who owes little to any other legislator. Vote trades and pork-barrel projects are an essential way of achieving what force and language cannot produce.”
I have always felt that the conservative uprising against earmarks in the mid-2000s involved more than a little bit of legerdemain—they said nothing when Bush rammed a new entitlement program, Medicare Part D, into law in 2003 at a long-term cost to taxpayers of $16 trillion, according to the latest Medicare trustees report. Nor did they say anything about properly funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have cost more than $1 trillion so far. And, of course, conservatives said nothing about the $3 trillion increase in the national debt resulting from the Bush tax cuts.
The focus on relatively trivial earmarks was just a way of diverting attention away from actions that had far more impact on the national debt.
This raises another problem with demonizing earmarks—ire is directed only at those on the spending side of the budget; those on the tax side are routinely ignored. This fact is illustrated by the misnamed group Americans for Tax Reform, which supports every single tax loophole that is proposed. Its rationale is that all tax cuts are per se good and all tax increases are per se bad. The result is that the tax code has become littered with special interest tax-giveaways that are no different from direct spending in terms of their economic effect.
Even conservative heroes like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are unabashed about using tax cuts exactly like spending earmarks. On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that he recently gave away $102 million in state tax credits to Panasonic, $82 million to Goya Foods, and $251 million to Prudential Insurance in order to keep jobs in the state.
Unfortunately, getting rid of tax expenditures is even harder than getting rid of earmarks because the former tend to be enacted permanently, while the latter are usually for one-time projects such as a road or a bridge; the spending ends when the project is completed and doesn’t add to the deficit forever like tax expenditures.
Conservatives also tend to focus excessively on transportation-related earmarks, such as the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska that would have cost $400 million to benefit just 50 people. But pork in the defense budget is largely overlooked because conservatives love defense spending. Indeed, just last week, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) said he didn’t believe U.S. military commanders when they said they didn’t need more money. Consequently, the defense budget has become a common vehicle for conservative pork.
Finally, concern about earmarks gives a pass to presidential requests in his budget. It is just assumed that they represent the national interest. But every president running for re-election shamelessly promotes local public works in places where he thinks it will buy votes. For example, a July 13, 2004 headline in the Wall Street Journal said, “Bush Woos Voters through Local Projects.”
As a result of such myopia, members of Congress have learned to simply lobby the administration to include their pet projects in its budget request, rather than get an amendment enacted in Congress to authorize them. The process is more cumbersome, but accomplishes the same goal.
Perhaps the ultimate cost of the earmark obsession is that it has significantly reduced Congress’s willingness and ability to fund necessary public works, since even the most essential are too easily labeled as “pork,” making legislators wary of supporting them. But as a new report from the Treasury Department and the Council of Economic Advisers explains, the nation faces a severe infrastructure gap, as necessary repairs and upgrades to our nation’s roads and bridges have been deferred for much too long.