Off the Mark

Republicans' railings against President Barack Obama's "socialistic" domestic agenda -- which really just consists of modest attempts to correct market failures -- include a particularly ironic crusade against earmarks. To conservatives, congressional pork is a classic example of a big-spending government, which is why they almost unanimously oppose the practice of allowing legislators to add funds for projects in their states or districts on top of unrelated bills, with little to no debate.

In Politico last week, Rep.-Elect Sean Duffy of Wisconsin called banning earmarks a no-brainer, because they "symbolize everything Americans resent about Washington's business-as-usual." As of this week, Republican leaders in the House and Senate have endorsed earmark bans for the 112th Congress. Taking a page from his newest colleagues, incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner declared: "Earmarks have become a symbol of a Congress that has broken faith with the people. This earmark ban shows the American people we are listening and we are dead serious about ending business as usual in Washington."

But for all of their yelling about small government and a broken political process, conservatives seem to have missed an important point. Despite their modern association with corruption, earmarks are a good expression of the Madisonian idea that parochial concerns deserve a say in the regular functioning of government. As political scientists Sean Kelly and Scott Frisch point out in their defense of earmarks, Cheese Factories on the Moon, "This is how the people are able to have their issues addressed through federal spending." The Constitution gives Congress sole authority over spending, with the president taking a supporting role -- to sign or veto bills. But in practice, the president guides the spending priorities of Congress; the White House sets the agenda with a budget proposal and the legislature modifies it and votes on it. Agencies then have a lot of control over their allocated funds. Without earmarks, most individual members of Congress would have very little input -- other than their vote -- on what the government spends and how it's spent. Small-bore projects which are nonetheless valuable in communities would likely get lost in the shuffle.

In their zeal to eliminate earmarks, small-government conservatives are ceding congressional power to the president. Indeed, it's no surprise to see that President Obama is enthusiastic about the prospect of an earmark ban; if Congress doesn't allocate spending, the executive branch will gladly take the reins, with the White House and government agencies gaining a greater say in how appropriated funds are actually spent.

This might be fine for some progressive wonks who aren't too thrilled by the parochialism of the system, but I'm mystified by the enthusiasm shown by Republicans and conservative activists who just rode a pro-populist wave into power. After all, these are the people who want to repeal the 17th Amendment -- which provides for the direct election of senators -- because it supposedly contributes to big government by moving senators away from the direct interests of their state governments.

Of course, you don't need to dig deep to find a frivolous project or blatant example of horse-trading. Still, for every Bridge to Nowhere, there is a project worth doing. As The New York Times recently pointed out, a failing flood-control system in St. Louis, Missouri, went unaddressed for years before the state's Republican senator took advantage of earmarks to move the repairs along. In the 2nd District of Virginia (which includes Virginia Beach, my hometown), earmarks have funded research at Old Dominion University to improve bioelectrics for wounded service members as well as a program at the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters to provide comprehensive care for abused children. And in Virginia's 5th District, earmarks sponsored by outgoing Rep. Tom Perriello have provided funding for programs to help at-risk youth in Martinsville and give a local county the funds necessary to upgrade its wastewater system.

On the whole, earmarks are actually more transparent and more accessible than most forms of government spending. That's even more so now, after House Democrats banned earmarks for private, for-profit companies earlier this year. Over the last decade, legislators have created a network of regulations for earmarks, making public disclosure mandatory for each request. What's more, many congressional offices now require applications for earmarks to avoid frivolous requests. Standardizing that process and making it more selective could go a long way toward curbing any remaining abuse.

On the whole, if conservatives were thinking rationally, they would want to reform the process, not end it. It's not just that earmarks make up a minuscule portion of the federal budget -- about 2 percent -- but that a Congress without earmarks is a Congress where bureaucrats make more, and larger, spending decisions. In the end, if conservatives successfully ban earmarks, they will be in the odd position of favoring a system in which unelected bureaucrats -- and not "the people" -- spend taxpayer money.

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