One of the items at the top of the next session of Congress is to be earmarks. Earmarks have taken on an evil stigma due to wasteful spending. It seems like an easy thing to support in this era of out of control Congressional spending. But is it that simple? I strongly support the practice of using earmarks and think they should absolutely continue. Whoa, you say, how can someone with conservative values ever support earmarks? Read on and see.
First off, let’s define what earmarks are. There are two main types, hard and soft. Much like donating to a political party. A hard earmark is attached to a piece of legislation and appropriates funding to a specific project. Otherwise known as pork. A soft earmark doesn’t target a specific project, rather it has discretion in how it is appropriated. With political parties, a hard earmark equivalent would be donating to a candidate and a soft earmark would equate to donating to a party.
Let’s remember why our representatives are sent to Washington. To represent their constituents back in their home district. This includes securing federal funding for state and local projects. We are paying our federal taxes and it is one of their tasks to bring our fair share back home. Eye of the beholder stuff. We like it when federal dollars are spent in our district on, say, new roads and bridges. Of course no one living elsewhere likes it because they don’t directly benefit from it. As long as we continue sending federal tax dollars to Washington, this is the only way to ensure we get our share back.
Let’s use a hypothetical bill. Suppose Congress passes a $10 billion dollar transportation funding bill. If there are no earmarks at all, the entire amount is then left to the discretion of the transportation secretary. Do you suppose he would have favorite projects? Do you suppose he is being lobbied to fund specific projects? It’s like the TARP funding we all hate. $700 billion was appropriated and left up to Paulson then and Geithner now to decide where it goes. In other words, your state or local area may get left out in the cold and then you have effectively subsidized projects in other states through your tax dollars. No return on your ‘investment’.
With each and every dollar of an appropriations bill ‘earmarked’, it’s already accounted for and can’t fall into a black hole and end up who knows where. This is one of the few ways in which we can hold our elected representatives accountable. There exists a written record of exactly how they are spending our tax dollars and accordingly, how they are representing their district. That’s why I believe every single dollar of every single bill should be earmarked so we have accountability. Let’s not forget that eliminating earmarks won’t save a single penny. It would only mean that the money is not appropriated up front. Again, who knows where it will end up then.
Now, there are problems with the current process, to be sure. Earmarks are one of the primary methods for rewarding lobbyists. Members of Congress can take advantage of the current system and if they are influential enough, they can get a largely disproportionate amount of funds for their pet projects. There has been legislation proposed that would clean up the process and bring transparency into it. That didn’t get any traction, but in lieu of the recent election and the tea party influence, this is becoming a very hot topic again.
I think we need to really look at this issue and determine if scrapping it serves us best. I don’t believe it does. I also don’t support keeping earmarks in their current format. The overhaul is necessary to impose limits and increase transparency. The capability to remove specific earmarks must be in place and be accompanied by a dollar for dollar reduction in the size of the bill. This shouldn’t be a very tough sell for most politicians. They will, in fact, promote their earmark spending to illustrate to their constituents that they are getting results for their district. A simple restriction would be to limit total earmark designations for a state to ensure it cannot exceed the total federal tax dollars that were paid in. Require a super majority to override this should the bill be for an infrastructure project in a specific area of the country. Obviously, something like the Hoover Dam would need an exemption.
There are many ways we could go when it comes to accountability and limits. The point is that earmarks are actually one of the best tools we have in our voter toolbox to hold our elected representatives accountable. Let’s not just throw it away without understanding the whole process. I don’t prefer grey area, slush fund bills where it’s all a mystery. I want a track record. Let’s instead push for revising the rules on earmarks as necessary to ensure the loopholes are gone.