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Earmarks Are Not the Problem, Spending Is the Problem

To point out the elephant sitting next to the 500-pound gorilla in the room, the federal government spends too much money. In spite of the regular verbal abuses levelled at so-called “earmarks,” they are not to blame for this massive problem. In a sense, earmarks, can be considered part of the solution. Why? Because they are transparent.

One of the primary catalysts for profligate spending is the near-complete lack of transparency in the annual congressional appropriations process. Rather than budgets with neatly organized line-items detailing where and how taxpayer dollars are spent, most federal spending results from huge pots of money allocated by very general categories for the thousands of federal offices, agencies, and departments authorized to spend those dollars. Attempting to track specifically where monies eventually are spent is nearly impossible, even for those familiar with the arcane process.

This purposeful lack of transparency is made worse due to decades of funding government through short-term (usually “emergency”) bills, where bloat and the sheer speed at which the bills are passed helps to ensure opacity.

One of the most popular Beltway novelties is Sen. Rand Paul’s annual “Festivus Report” that confirms what we have long known, which is that government is wasteful. The truly bothersome take-away from Rand’s study is the degree to which it makes clear the absurd ways in which taxpayer dollars actually are being wasted. 

While Rand’s yearly opus sheds a broad light on wasteful spending, it is by definition, after-the-fact. Earmarks, on the other hand, provide a more current way for taxpayers to see how some of those federal dollars are to be spent, as they are specific line-items in proposed appropriations bills. This process allows at least a small amount of sunshine to be cast on an otherwise deliberately dark process. 

Often, the stigma directed at earmarks is not with the process itself, but with the specific programs or activities to which the earmarks are directed. This is understandable. However, contrast earmark spending, which constitutes a mere one percent of the budget, with the vast office budgets for federal agencies that lack anywhere near the same level of transparency as earmark spending. We might know that a particular agency receives so many billion dollars in funding, but that is about it. 

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When considered objectively, earmark spending represents how government spending should be handled. In order to get an earmark, a member of Congress who has a specific need in his or her district must convince fellow members on committees to consider and approve funding for this need. If they are successful in convincing other members of the merits of their proposal, it becomes a public line-item in the budget to then be voted on, and with a “paper trail” for the world to see. 

Imagine if all federal funding had to go through a similar process, rather than money just being tucked away in a “general fund” where billions in taxpayer dollars are allocated without ever seeing the light of day. Earmarks hold members of Congress accountable for spending habits far better than the overall appropriations process, notwithstanding they always make easy targets for “fiscal hawks” to prove they are “fiscal hawks.” 

Not surprising, it rarely is noted by earmark critics that such proposed spending measures do not actually constitute new spending, but instead are specifically directed expenses from the amounts appropriated for the federal agencies that are to perform the earmarked projects. 

In other words, whether earmarked or not, the money is being spent regardless, so the more honest conversation is not about earmarks themselves, but why Congress feels compelled to spend so much overall year after year. That, however, makes for a far more uncomfortable conversation, and one that many self-described “fiscally conservative” Republicans would rather avoid, especially when a president of their Party is the one on a spending spree.

Banning earmarks in the past did not curb federal spending, nor will doing so in the future. Unless and until Democrats and Republicans alike stop using the latest and greatest “disaster” to camouflage and justify ever more wildly excessive government spending, taxpayers actually stand to benefit from earmark spending, which affords them at least one tool with which to sift through the bureaucratic fog that otherwise hides the trillions of dollars Uncle Sam blithely spends.

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