Saturday, March 31, 2012

Show Us the Money

Critics of earmarks frequently point to the presumed quid pro quo between earmarks and campaign contributions. They argue that members of Congress pursue earmarks in order to rake in campaign contributions from lobbyists who are scrambling to get earmarks for their clients.

If this is true then one would expect that members of the Appropriations Committees would be raising piles of cash. Membership on Appropriations should be the most valuable--or one of the most valuable--committee assignments a member could achieve from the perspective of campaign contributions.

This American Life is airing a program this week about money and politics. Part of the program focuses on this question: Which committees are most valuable in terms of campaign contributions? Lee Drutman, a Senior Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation (and fellow political scientist), crunched the numbers (covering multiple congresses and going back into the 1990s) for Planet Money.

Is an assignment to Appropriations number 1? No, that honor goes to Ways and Means. OK. Well that makes sense. Targeted tax provisions (tax earmarks) are worth a fortune--millions, even billions--to well-represented and well-financed corporations.

Surely Appropriations is number 2. No, that honor goes to the Financial Services Committee. Hmm. Well, OK. That makes sense, they write legislation that influences the bottom line of the financial services industry, the largest component of the American economy.

Well, you know, Appropriations is number 3, right? Sorry, that honor goes to the Energy and Commerce Committee. Again, this makes sense since the jurisdiction of the committee is the broadest in the House, covering everything from oil and gas to health care. Many, many corporations have legislative interests that fall within the purview of the committee.

Is it surprising that Appropriations is not in the top three; that it falls in the middle of the distribution? Not really. Critics of earmarks have been loud in their denunciations of earmarks, and shrewd in creating the quid pro quo narrative, but they have been (and are) wrong. They have diverted attention from the more important and less visible legislative activities in Congress that are infinitely more costly to American taxpayers.

In the meantime earmark foes have robbed our representatives of the ability to counterbalance the power of the executive branch to spend money by successfully hounding congressional leaders for an earmark moratorium. Furthermore, absent earmarks the legislative process has almost completely stalled. After draining the oil from the engine is anyone surprised when the engine seizes up during the cross-country trip?

With the legislative process stalled, and Congress pressured to pass authorizations and appropriations for infrastructure and water projects, it will become increasingly clear that earmarks are critical for Congress to fulfill its constitutional role.