–Should federal earmarks be ended?

The debt hawks are to economics as the creationists are to biology. They, who do not understand monetary sovereignty, do not understand economics.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated support for a moratorium on earmarks. This is in line with GOP conservatives who want to reduce federal spending. Never mind that earmarks are a minuscule part of federal spending. Earmarks have a bad name; many people feel there is something inherently wrong with earmarks, as though they somehow were a form of stealing. They are closely associated in people’s minds with “pork barrel” spending, which also has a bad name.

But what is an “earmark.” It is nothing more than spending directed at a specific project. In one sense, virtually all government spending could be called an “earmark,” though the term usually is more narrowly focused on small projects in a particular Congressperson’s district. Building a road, fixing a bridge, refurbishing a school, providing an ambulance or hiring a fire fighter all can be earmarks.

In common usage, an earmark is an appropriation inserted in a large bill, the appropriation being too small to incur a veto from the President or even a rejection by Congress. Thus, an earmark can bypass both Legislative and Executive branch intent. But does that mean earmarks are bad? Not at all. The vast majority of earmarks are worthwhile. Not only do they buy valuable assets and services, but they provide specific remedies for local problems that otherwise would go unnoticed by Congress and the President. And, just as important, money paid for earmarks adds to the national money supply, which is stimulative.

There are three key arguments against earmarks, all of them suspect:

Argument 1. Earmarks waste money that otherwise would go to worthier projects.
The worthiness of any project is in the eye of the beholder. Is a school in Nevada worth more or less than an equally-priced prison in Oregon? Is a sewer in Illinois worth more or less than a dam in Minnesota? These are discussions in which neither Congress nor the President could or should be involved. That is why each Congressperson serves an individual district, rather than only serving the nation as a whole. Earmarks give voters in individual cities, counties and states the ability to receive funding for important, local projects.

Argument 2. Earmarks add to the federal deficit. I won’t repeat the arguments you can find on virtually every page in this blog. For example, see: https://rodgermmitchell.wordpress.com/2009/09/07/introduction/ A quick summary of the facts. Adding to the federal debt is absolutely necessary for economic growth. Even the notorious “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, would have employed many people, profited many businesses, and even might have provided a slight convenience for a few people. And it would have done no harm to anyone.

Argument 3. Earmarks aren’t fair; some Congresspersons get more than others. The question of “fairness” is similar to the question of worthiness. Who judges what is fair and what is not? Smart voters take into consideration what their representatives can do for their specific area, not only what the representative can do for the entire nation. People who receive less, whether it be earmarks, salary, bonus or just a good place in line, often feel the system is unfair. People who receive more, like it just fine.

When you read that Mitch McConnell has done a sudden U-turn from his previous position of supporting earmarks, and now hates them, you can be sure he is doing it for political, not financial or even logical, reasons. If he and the other politicians were to succeed in ending earmarks (unlikely), I pity all the local cities and counties, the businesses and charities and even the states, whose voices will not be heard and needs not be met. How else can these people receive attention, consideration and federal money, if not for earmarks?

Ending earmarks is like banning cars to prevent auto accidents. Or to use the old cliche, “Throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

No nation can tax itself into prosperity. Those who say the stimulus “didn’t work” remind me of the guy whose house is on fire. A neighbor runs with a garden hose and starts spraying, but the fire continues. The neighbor wants to call the fire department, which would bring the big hoses, but the guy says, “Don’t call. As you can see, water doesn’t put out fires.”

13 thoughts on “–Should federal earmarks be ended?

  1. Another argument against earmarks not mentioned is that earmarks generally benefit those groups which have the financial wherewithal to make sizable donations to a politican in exchange for the same benefit that perhaps hundreds of other groups hope to receive. So I think there is a sleaze factor that makes earmarks highy unpopular – to those that don’t benefit from them, of course.


  2. Earmarks are being eliminated because they are outside of the normal appropriation process. Even Rand Paul is not opposed to bringing projects to his state so long as they are subject to open debate and not secretly slipped in to some 2000 page bill.


    1. It is not possible for every Congressperson to be knowledgeable enough about every district in America, to be able to evaluate and debate every appropriation.

      Nothing can be “secretly slipped” into a bill. All bills are open to be read. But the country is too large and too complex for Congress to debate every detail. That’s why we have Representatives representing relatively small districts and Senators representing states.

      What you and Rand Paul seem to be suggesting is a change in our form of government, where individual districts and states do not have individual representation.

      Rodger Malcolm Mitchell


      1. “All bills are open to be read”

        ROFL !!!

        Don’t you remember “We have to pass it first, and then we can read it” ???


  3. I reject the notion that the bridge to nowhere harmed no one. Concrete, steel, oil and other materials were consumed and harmful externalities were created for very limited economic benefit (other than for those politically connected few.) I may as well cozy up to my congressman and have my driveway four-laned.


  4. Ed,
    There always is a tradeoff between employment and a perfectly pure, natural green world. Humans make a footprint.

    As for having your driveway paid by the federal government, that would benefit you and the economy, but it could be criticized as not being green, as could just about all of man’s activities.

    Rodger Malcolm Mitchell


    1. So the the Feds should paraphrase Gordon Gecko – WASTE IS GOOD.

      If you can do the job in two hours, take four. If the job should take two people, hire four and sit two in the corner. If you need two units of X material, buy four and bury the rest.

      This reminds me of a story about the WPA. A woman hired the WPA to mow the small plot of grass between her sidewalk and the street. They showed up with eight workers, two mowers, two trucks and two portapotties. When she queried the foreman she was told, “This is full employment. We have two comin’, two goin’, two sh*ttin’, and two mowin’.”


        1. Why? Because it makes room for more useful spending under the limit of what is politically possible for government to spend (even if we are not at the limit of what is economically possible).

          And it would help to expose and control the culture of corruption in Washington.


  5. Rather than earmarks, let Congress simply make a block grant to the states ($X,XXX per person), and let the people closest to the problems decide on their local priorities. There is no need for a bridge on a local road to be a Federal Project, except that it helps the corrupt politicians to buy votes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s