Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Epic Fail: The Earmark Moratorium Solved Nothing

During the 2010 election season criticism of earmarks reached a fever pitch. Candidates running on the political right declared that earmarks were the source of most of our evils.

Arch earmark opponent Senator Tom Coburn cast earmarks as a "gateway" to big spending. Following the 2010 elections Senator John McCain, a long time foe of earmarks, said that “The time has come for Congress to put a stop to the corrupt practice of earmarking once and for all.”
Critics of earmarks argued that eliminating earmarks would be a step toward balancing the budget and restoring confidence in American political institutions. As it turns out eliminating earmarks has achieved neither objective.

According to a new Gallup poll  “Americans now estimate that the federal government wastes 51 cents on the dollar, a new high since Gallup first began asking the question in 1979.” This is the first time since Gallup began asking this question back in the late-1970s that the estimated percentage of waste exceeded 50%.

So the budget deficit remains despite the moratorium on earmarks. And people are now convinced that government wastes more money than they thought when earmarks were included in appropriations bills. Nice work.

We have long argued that the earmark hysteria was concocted to promote the political fortunes of certain politicians, and increase contributions to "watchdog groups." On numerous occasions we have argued that the brouhaha surrounding earmarks was mostly about generating soundbites. This blog and our book Cheese Factories on the Moon are aimed at promoting a full understanding of earmarks.

Now comes a news release from watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense in which they finally admit that the bluster about earmarks was more about generating public ire than promoting serious budget savings. In a recent release the organization says, “... congressional earmarks were $15.9 billion in fiscal year 2010 -- less than half of 1 percent of the budget. Good sound bites don't always equal big savings.”

This political donnybrook over earmarks would be unremarkable but for one fact: The elimination of earmarks is bad for American democracy.
  • The moratorium robs the ability of members of Congress to adapt national programs to address the unique problems and concerns of their constituents. It is left to the bureaucrats in the executive branch to prioritize spending.
  • In the absence of earmarks Congress is unable to substitute its own judgement for that of the executive branch. We have pointed out here how projects like the Predator Drone, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, and other projects were pushed by Congress before they were adopted as good ideas by the executive branch.
  • In the coming months members of Congress will need to make painful decisions about future  government spending. In the past earmarks served as the "spoonful of sugar" that helped soothe these bitter choices. In our system, which relies on compromise, earmarks made compromise easier to swallow. Congressional leaders no longer have this tool at their disposal. The earmark moratorium makes finding common ground much more difficult.
    A strong Congress was a critical component of the Founders' institutional design. Granting the Congress the "power of the purse" was a conscious decision meant to bolster the power of Congress and promote the interests of the people through their elected representatives.

    The current moratorium has not delivered on its promises and is harmful to the Congress-centered nature of American democracy. As the kids say these days: Epic Fail.

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