Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Four Myths About Congressional Earmarks

Never has a quote so accurately summed up the arguments of earmark critics, and rarely is a quote as demonstrably false as this one from a New York Times article published on July 4, 2010.[1]
Critics say spending on earmarks, which added $16 billion to the federal budget last year, diverts money from higher priorities, typically does not require competitive bids and is often directed to experimental research that will never be used.
The authors of the article echo the arguments made by “watchdog” groups failing to critically assess their statements.  In this essay we take on the four myths about congressional earmarks that are embedded in this quote.
When the appropriations subcommittees make spending decisions they begin with a pot of money, a 302(b) allocation. This is the pot of money available to the subcommittee to spend on the programs that are funded by their bill. It is up to the subcommittee to decide on what this money will be spent.  A small percentage of this money will be “earmarked” for some specific purposes.  The subcommittee has not “added” money to the pot.  Earmarks do not add spending the budget anymore than choosing to purchase a box of pasta instead of a pound of bananas (i.e., earmarking funds for pasta) adds to one’s bill at the supermarket.  In fact, Congress often approves spending levels lower than those requested by the president shifting some of the savings to earmarked accounts.
Critics argue that earmarks divert funding from higher priorities.  What constitutes a “higher priority” is a value judgment and the pivotal issue is: Who decides what constitutes a “higher priority”? Without explicitly stating it critics of earmarks argue that the president (relying mostly on unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats making decisions under less than transparent circumstances) should decide spending priorities and Congress should simply rubber stamp those decisions.  In granting the “power of the purse” to the Congress the framers of the Constitution sought to situate this power as closely to the people as possible, to make government democratically accountable for spending decisions for setting priorities.
Furthermore, critics of earmarks fail to support their contention that the executive branch makes “better” decisions about priorities than does the Congress. For instance, as the problem of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) became apparent early in the Iraq War the lack of armor for military vehicles was defended by the Bush Administration.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said “you go to war with the military you have.”  Being kept alive by earmarks included in the Defense Appropriations bill—to the chagrin of the White House—was  an idea that might help soldiers in the field; the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle.  MRAPs were not a “priority” of the executive (the repository of superior decision-makers), but Congress funneled funding into the project and ultimately saved soldiers’ lives in Iraq.  Likewise, the Predator Drone, which is used widely in Afghanistan and Iraq and is acknowledged for saving the lives of American soldiers, was resisted by the Pentagon and "pushed" on them through congressional earmarks.  Who wants an unmanned attack drone?  It is now one of the main arrows in the quiver of those fighting terrorism abroad.
Critics complain about earmarks being used for “experimental research that will never be used.”  To some extent this is probably true; some ideas will pan out while others will not; but that is why they are called experiments.  As academics we have hard drives full of data that were collected and never produced meaningful results; papers that were written and never published; grant proposals that were written and never funded; and the list goes on.  Experimentation and failure (and success) are natural components of the process of discovery.  Making precisely this point Albert Einstein famously said: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research, would it?”  Anyone engaged in research will tell you that there are no guarantees of success.  Are there any successes associated with earmarks?  What bigger gamble than to earmark initial funding to map the human genome—considered an impossibility by most of the scientific community in the 1980s—which ultimately produced medical and technological discoveries that will fuel biotechnology for decades to come.
            In one regard critics of earmarks are somewhat correct: Earmarked funds are often awarded without competitive bidding.  However even this requires some context.  First, the executive bureaucracy often grants money without competitive bidding (think here of the billions and billions spend on no-bid contracts associated with the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars).  Somehow the critics would have us believe that non-competitive grants from the executive are superior to congressional earmarks, despite the fact that no-bid contracts through the executive are far less transparent than congressional earmark awards.  Second, as we discuss at much greater length in our book, earmark requests do compete with one another within the appropriations process.  Despite popular belief not all earmark requests are granted.  Our research on requests for earmarks in the Interior and Military Construction subcommittees suggests that less than one in four earmarks are granted.  The earmarks that are included in appropriations emerge from a brutally competitive environment.
            We end this essay as we ended our first essay: “The use of appropriations earmarks is one political issue where the media consistently fails to exercise balance in their coverage.  While media outlets routinely take pains to seek out conflicting views on even the most widely accepted truths (e.g., global climate change, evolution), it is rare to hear dissenting voices on the issue of appropriations earmarks.”

[1] Eric Lipton and Ron Nixon, “Companies Find Ways to Bypass Ban on Earmarks” New York Times July 4, 2010.

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