In last year’s elections, many Republicans campaigned on eliminating earmarks, saying that they were fiscally irresponsible and useless. Whether they won because of that or in spite of that is unknown.
Every few months, there is a vote in one or both houses of Congress on an earmark ban. It either fails, or it passes but then is ignored immediately since it wasn’t binding.
Some say getting rid of them is necessary to reduce the deficit, and they are a sign of government waste and abuse. They basically say, “Unless we elect fiscally conservative politicians that will vote against money for their district, we will have a deficit that will never go away.” But this is the wrong target to focus on. Earmarks are demonized when they should not be.
First of all, even if we got rid of earmarks, it wouldn’t solve the deficit problem. Even if we use the broadest possible term for an earmark, we spent about $17 billion in earmarks in the 2009 fiscal year. But the deficit was $1.4 trillion.
Second of all, earmarks are the passageway for federal money to get to your district. Congressmen receive requests from their constituents for money to complete projects. Infrastructure is repaired and modified, helpful government programs start, museums and facilities are built, jobs are created and the congressman can say he provided something for his district, giving him publicity for re-election.
Some areas of the country, particularly poor or rural areas, need earmarks to survive economically. Any congressman who stops providing them will truly taste the wrath of the voters. Even areas that aren’t poor or rural expect them, and their budgets would fall apart without them.
Finally, it can help keep majorities in line. Party leaders must appeal to the individual motives of the members. Earmarks are used to get the votes of members who might otherwise vote nay. It’s the simple self-interest argument.
Now, some of them sound ridiculous. John McCain made a mockery of a grizzly bear DNA study in Montana, Bobby Jindal made fun of volcano monitoring and, of course, there was the Bridge to Nowhere. Many other politicians have ridiculed programs far more ridiculous than those. As noted above, however, there is every incentive to have as many earmarks as possible.
As for the deficit, there’s a very good explanation for why earmarks are blamed. No politician wants to make tough choices and, in reality, cutting the deficit will be a messy process that will require huge sacrificial decisions. But every politician says he or she can easily cut the deficit by getting rid of “waste.” Well, there isn’t enough waste. Sure, we have some waste, but it’s not the root cause of our deficit woes.
Many people have this view that the government has trillions and trillions of dollars of useless wasted spending that can be removed if we just had the competence. But it turns out, the government actually spends money on things people want and need.
Nobody wants to point fingers at what is really causing the deficit, because it would mean facing against many powerful interests and voting for unpopular measures.
You want to know how to balance the budget? Here’s my plan: raise income taxes on the wealthy to pre-Reagan levels, reform the tax code to eliminate loopholes and unnecessary subsidies, cut defense spending according to the recommendations of the Defense Secretary and control the costs of Medicare and Medicaid.
Now, these decisions are far from easy, but they are necessary. Even they may not be enough, but it is more of a first step than blaming requests for hippie museums in Nevada.