Put Earmarks in Perspective

It is hard to take seriously a political opposition whose major antidote to the most serious and frightening financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression is a rhetorical crusade against congressional earmarks.

Sen. John McCain took to the Senate floor Monday to unleash his fury at the 9,000 earmarks — “wasteful, disgraceful, corrupting … pork barrel spending” — that are included in a $410 billion omnibus spending bill for the current budget year. McCain was particularly incensed that President Barack Obama decided not to veto this legislation in spite of his campaign promise to reform the earmark process and go through the budget line by line to make sure we’re not spending money unwisely.

McCain has long been a passionate opponent of congressional earmarks, and his jeremiads against them never fail to stir a public whose level of trust in government to spend its tax dollars wisely has never been lower. And there is merit to much of what he says. The number and cost of earmarks exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000s. New lobbying shops, often working on commission for private contractors and local governments, used their experience on Capitol Hill and access to policymakers to deliver projects outside of the regular grant-making and contracting processes, threatening the quality of resource allocation. Standards for scrubbing earmark requests in the appropriations committees declined. Campaign fundraising took on aspects of pay-to-play systems for those seeking earmarked projects. On occasion, this descended into criminal quid pro quo exchanges.

The excesses of earmarking have been acknowledged and addressed in the past several years. Most important, new transparency measures were adopted to make possible public accountability. Members of Congress will be increasingly sensitive to the potential political costs as well as benefits of directing project funds to those who pay to play. In addition, the congressional leadership has stopped the precipitous growth of earmarks and begun to reduce their number and cost. Both of these developments — increasing transparency and declining volume — should and almost certainly will continue as work begins on the 2010 budget. An increase in the Department of Justice public corruption investigation budget would also help discipline the most egregious abusers of the earmarking system.

But dramatic calls for an abolition of earmarks, by law or presidential veto, are futile and counterproductive. Congress has the constitutional power of the purse and legitimately defends its authority to allocate public resources. Given the enormity of the economic and financial problems facing the country, Obama would be foolish to engage Congress in a battle over earmarks.

Earmarks constitute less than 1 percent of the federal budget. In most cases, they don’t add to federal expenditures but merely allow Congress to direct a small fraction of program funding that would otherwise be allocated by formula or grant competition. Abolishing all earmarks would therefore have a trivial effect on the level of spending and budget deficits. While earmark reform and reduction is a worthy cause, it is a relatively minor one. It would do nothing to slow the rate of federal spending or improve our long-term budget outlook. Moreover, hyperbolic attacks on earmarks do a disservice to the public, encouraging people to concentrate way too much attention and energy on a largely symbolic issue and ignore the critical decisions that we face in the months and years ahead.

In an effort to stimulate an economy threatened by deflation and severe recession, federal spending will increase dramatically over the next several years. The challenge is to see that these new funds are expended in the most responsible way possible. Beefing up our public management capacity — in contracting, financial accountability, program evaluation — and developing oversight systems are the highest priorities. Same with efforts under way to stabilize the financial markets. Then there are the daunting challenges of designing and implementing new systems to restrain the cost and increase the coverage of health care and to shift to a low-carbon economy, to say nothing of grappling with a huge, long-term fiscal imbalance.

In this most threatening and challenging policy environment, it is time for earmarks to be put in their proper perspective and for politicians in both parties to get serious with the public about what really lies ahead.