The (Not So) Great Earmark Debate

(Ed: This is the first post in a 3-part series on earmarks.)

You have to wonder about the intelligence of a system that encourages this sort of behavior: Democrats slipped $5 billion for the IMF into the latest supplemental war-funding bill (via the Economist; emphasis mine).

It was always foolish to pretend that a vote against a war-funding bill, especially one that everyone knew was going to pass, was some kind of Doltschuss against GI Joe. Because war-funding bills are so impossible to oppose, they’re always larded with special projects and money that didn’t make it into some other bill. If this is what it takes to expose that, great. If it takes the defeat of this bill and the negotiation of a clean one, even better.

The astute observer will remember that Democrats were ostracized for trying to block a similarly bloated war bill in December of 2007. Cries of “but you aren’t supporting the troops!” convinced them otherwise. Bank on Democrats (successfully) trying the same tactic against Republicans this time around.

Of course, this is nothing new. We operate in a legislative system where earmarks are the norm. Some are for party projects, like the Dems’ inclusion of IMF funding, although most are pet projects designed to bring goodies to the constituents back home. Some, like John McCain, treat earmarks as the ultimate affront to sensibility. Others rightly point out that they’re a pretty insignificant portion of the budget at less than one percent. I don’t think those two viewpoints are mutually exclusive, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, to the shock tactics:

Conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation reported back in March that the most recent stimulus package contained over 9,000 earmarks. (Liberal watchdog Media Matters notes that 40 percent of those were of Republican origin, and this is important because both parties are complicit in the crime.)

Just this week, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) released a report detailing $5.5 billion in wasteful earmarks from that same bill (via The Wall Street Journal):

Among the top 10 are funds for repairing bridges in rural Wisconsin, including $840,000 for a small bridge that carries just 260 vehicles daily. It also lists $800,000 for the John Murtha Airport in Johnstown/Cambria County in Pennsylvania “despite the fact that virtually no one uses the airport.”

And Politico did some digging on questionable stimulus funding (valued at $1 billion) that commissions FutureGen to build a clean coal power plant, which Dems swore up and down would not be included in the bill as an earmark.

Debates about FutureGen and variable definitions of “earmark” notwithstanding, there are two things to take away from all this. Pork happens. And it doesn’t cost that much.

That being said, there is certainly cause for the John McCains of the world to wave their crusading red pens and cry “Foul!” each and every time pork makes its way through the legislature. Yeah, it doesn’t cost that much, but that doesn’t mean it’s an efficient use of money. Those who wish to brush it under the rug may be right as a practical matter — eliminating earmarks won’t do a damn thing to the deficit. But it ignores an important fact: those same $100,000, $1 million, $1 billion dollars spent more efficiently could mean the world to a community, city, or even state. I’ll have more on that, and the root causes of earmarks in future posts.


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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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