• Marc Johnson

Those Awful Earmarks


The Constitution of the United States of America says in Article I, Section 9:

“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.”

Just to be clear, it is the specific duty of the Congress of the United States to appropriate money. The Founders set it up that way. Deciding the priorities of how the federal government spends your money is what Congress does.

The federal budget represents one of the most excruciatingly complex processes in our democracy. It is difficult to explain in simple English, but it goes something like this: Federal agencies, through the Executive Branch (the president) present requests to the Legislative Branch (Congress). Congress considers those recommendations and authorizes a certain level of spending for, say, the Department of Defense. Then the Appropriations Committees of the House and Senate determine how much will be spent on this weapons system or that air base. A tiny fraction of the money authorized – one or two percent – has typically been directed to certain projects or purposes by your representatives. Think back to Article I, Section 9. These directed appropriations are the now toxic and dreaded earmarks.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate, has been a champion of securing earmarks for his state – $1 billion in recent years – but he has now sworn off the dirty business. Same goes for Colorado Democrat Mark Udall. President Obama is on the earmark ban-wagon.

Most of these sensible legislators and the president are vowing to disown earmarks not because ending their use really has anything to do with controlling the massive federal budget, but because the dreaded earmark has become a symbol for an out of control federal budget. Symbols can be useful, but frankly this debate is not helpful because it obscures the real challenges of controlling the budget.

Eliminating earmarks, even if the ban is strongly enforced and enterprising appropriators resist finding ways to finesse the ban, will reduce the budget by a tiny, tiny fraction. It’s the equivalent of filling your gas tank with 50 bucks worth of fuel and then not squeezing the last three or four cents of gas into the tank. You might save a few cents at the pump, but you’ve still spent 50 dollars on gas. Former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, the co-chair of the controversial deficit reduction commission, dismisses the earmark ban as “sparrow belch.” I think that means not consequential.

Earmarks are not the problem with the federal budget – not even close. The real problem is to provide a factual, realistic framework for what needs to be done to control the budget; a framework that the American public can understand. In short, political leaders need to do something that has virtually disappeared in our politics – they need to educate and inform in a sensible, candid manner.

If we devote all of the future debate about the budget to sideshows like bans on earmarks, the American people will never get engaged on what really needs to be done. Certainly there have been abuses of the earmark. Randy “Duke” Cunningham is in federal prison for essentially selling earmarks for political and personal favors, but the earmark is also the way a small state secures research dollars for a state university or a small hospital gets new equipment.

Banning earmarks will thwart another Duke Cunningham, but the cure may be worst than the disease and, fundamentally, a ban won’t mean a thing to the deficit.

Other emerging strategies won’t do much either. New GOP leaders in the Congress are proposing, as a budget strategy, a return to 2008 or earlier budget levels. Such a move might cut $100 billion in spending. The current deficit is about $1.3 trillion.

Small steps, including symbolic cuts like banning earmarks, don’t just fail to address the deficit problem they risk being intellectually dishonest and they may serve to avoid doing what is really necessary – a wholesale assessment of spending and taxing and significant adjustments in both.

You can see why politicians are reluctant to engage in this serious conversation. Closer to home, a new poll in Idaho shows how vast the disconnect has become between public wants and public realism and understanding. The new poll says, in essence, that Idahoans, with the legislature facing a $340 million deficit at the state level, want no more budget cuts and no tax increases. Oh, if pressed, we could handle a big increase in the cigarette tax. This is the cake and eat too approach to fiscal reality.

The wise and measured Fareed Zakaria, writing in TIME, wonders if this looming debate over the budget and the deficit signals a fundamental turning point in American fortunes. “Historians may well look back,” he says, “and say this was the point at which the U.S. began its long and seemingly irreversible decline.”

It may indeed be a rare moment in American history when serious people step forward to talk about serious issues, or we may just settle for banning earmarks.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson