Earmarks: Much Ado About Nothing

Counter-intuitive proposition of the day:  Anyone who considers himself a “deficit hawk” or “fiscal conservative” and gets worked up over earmarks is either clueless or disingenuous.

We’re hearing a lot lately about earmarks — DC-speak for pork-barrel spending.  Whether it’s the “stimulus” bill signed into law last month, or the $410 billion spending bill that’s supposed to tide over Uncle Sam for the rest of fiscal ’09, it seems we can’t get away from them.

Nor can we get away from complaints about some of more ludicrous-sounding pet projects for individual lawmakers — like research into malodorous hogs.

In fact there’s so much caterwauling about such line-items, you’d think that if it weren’t for earmarks, we’d have a balanced budget.  Heck, we’d have had a balanced budget for years.

Not so.  Earmarks typically make up about 1% of the federal budget.  In the spending bill being debated right now, it’s a little under 2%.

Yes, it’s a great opportunity for certain politicians to posture about their colleagues setting aside money for golf courses and leashless dog parks.  John McCain has put this to great use in crafting his political identity.

But really, we’re talking about a pittance in the big scheme of the federal budget.  Slaughter all the earmarks, and it would barely put a dent in runaway spending.

Well actually, it wouldn’t even do that.

That’s because earmarks come out of a total amount of federal spending that’s carved in stone before the earmarks are ever doled out to the lawmakers.  In other words, the money’s going to get spent anyway.

The only difference is that with earmarks, individual lawmakers get a little bit of say in how it gets spent.  Take earmarks out of the equation, and the decisions get made within the executive branch, or at best, among the Congressional leadership — whose primary concern would be rewarding friends and punishing enemies among the back-benchers.

From a sheer separation-of-powers standpoint, earmarks are actually a good thing:  Remember, the money’s going to get spent anyway.

The new president talks about earmark “reform,” but leaders in his own party promise to resist.  “I don’t think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do,” says Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), the House Majority Leader.  Hoyer is about as hacktastic as they come, but he’s got it right here.

So why is there so much screeching about earmarks?  Well, it serves a very useful purpose for our political masters:  If you get the public in a lather over golf courses and dog parks, they’re less likely to ask questions about bailing out failed bankers, or mega-deals for defense contractors, or even wider questions about the proper role and size of government.

Next time you hear a politician or a pundit railing against earmarks, you might want to ask yourself:  Does this person have a clue how little difference earmarks make in the big picture?  Or does this person know full well how little difference it would make, and wants to create a distraction?