Acton Commentary

Earmarks: Don’t Mend Them, End Them


What should be done about earmarks? Some Republicans and Democrats call for reform. I propose total elimination of this political cancer. It is sickening the body politic by damaging its moral culture, destroying the good faith in government that is required for a just and effective rule of law.

An earmark is a “small” spending provision attached to an appropriations bill by a representative or senator for spending in his or her district or state. Individual earmarks, typically in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, are too insignificant to receive scrutiny in the legislative process.

Before getting to why earmarks should be eradicated, I acknowledge two points made by earmark apologists. Guardian angels for earmark spending rightly claim that elimination will not have a major impact on the federal budget deficit. The recently enacted $410 billion omnibus spending bill contained nearly 9,000 earmark pet projects. Total earmark spending in this bill was $8 billion. This is a lot of money is the eyes of John Q. Citizen, but is not a major contribution to our burgeoning federal budget deficit.

Second, I would not challenge the assessment that many “cuts of pork” created through the earmark process are fairly valuable pork. Some projects do have merit. In the omnibus spending bill, my Congressman Chet Edwards secured$1.3 million for the development of a 2.6 mile hiking and biking trail at an abandoned railroad bed near Waco. No doubt, this will contribute to recreation and fitness in Central Texas.

So why should we have surgery to eradicate earmark spending? Why is it ultimately so damaging to the common good? I offer six reasons.

First, earmarks violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the U. S. Constitution. The Constitution calls for deliberation and debate regarding government spending. Given the vast number of earmarks and the time limitations for our legislators, deliberation on thousands of congressional pet projects is impossible. Any scrutiny for an earmark is limited to the office of a single legislator.

Next, earmarks violate federalism. Our Founders assured those opposed to the Constitution that the national government would be confined to matters of national scope. The Tenth Amendment placed an exclamation point on this matter. In the 1820s, New York legislators proposed federal funding for construction of the Erie Canal. This was rejected because the canal would benefit only one region. With the bipartisan earmark explosion of recent decades, legislators do not question federal spending that favors even one location within a single county.

Since earmark spending is special interest spending, overextension of government spending results. For a special interest project, the beneficiaries are few in number but they benefit greatly. Taxpayers are many but tax shares are very small—just a penny, nickel, or dime. The result is that special interests win out over silent taxpayers. Earmark spending is a prescription for an ever-expanding government.

Earmarks buttress incumbent advantage. An incumbent senator or representative has the ability to unilaterally legislate spending in support of political allies and would-be friends. This power over government purse strings contributes to the virtual impossibility of defeating an incumbent legislator seeking reelection.

Earmarks are an invitation to corruption. The huge power that earmarks place in the hands of individual legislators is a temptation toward corruption. Those who seek them are tempted to skirt the law to win favor with a legislator so as to be graced with an earmark. We should not be surprised that a handful of former members of Congress now receive free room and board at federal prisons.

Finally, earmarks provide a tool that helps political party leaders bring members in line for partisan voting. Party leaders exercise control on the number and dollar amount of earmarks permitted for members of Congress. Earmarks contribute to today‘s environment of hyper-partisanship.

Though the earmark frenzy may not contribute significantly to this year’s trillion dollar budget deficit, they play a major role in the ever-growing deficit of confidence, trust, and respect that citizens have for national government.

John Pisciotta is associate professor of economics at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.


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