Obama's Budget: Earmarks Aren't the Real Problem

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Bob Elsdale / Corbis

When it comes to Congressional earmarks, it's hard to decide who's the biggest hypocrite. The current media favorite is President Obama, who sought earmarks as a senator, criticized earmarks as a candidate, and now plans to sign a spending bill stuffed with nearly 9,000 earmarks. But what about earmark-addicted Republicans, who oversaw an unprecedented explosion of earmarks when they controlled Congress, resisted efforts by Obama and other Democrats to inject accountability into the earmark process, and even grabbed over 40% of the earmarks in the current bill, yet have the gall to blast Obama's cave-in? Even John McCain, the leading crusader against earmarks, who railed against Obama's acceptance of the spending bill on the Senate floor this week, made exceptions during his presidential campaign for earmarks for Israel and military housing, as well as a ferry service for an impoverished Alabama town he visited over the summer.

Earmarks were made for hypocrisy; they're always reprehensible when they're in someone else's district. But despite all the Beltway hyperventilation, earmarks are not really a problem. Their exponential growth is a symptom of the larger problem of wasteful spending, but blaming the earmark process for wasteful spending is like blaming the Internet for porn. It is just a convenient delivery device, and it can have good uses as well as frivolous ones. Its abuse in recent years says more about the people misusing it than the process itself. (See the Top 10 Outrageous Earmarks of 2008.)

"Earmarks," specific spending items inserted into law by individual congressmen, are often conflated with "pork." In fact, "pork" is often defined as earmarked spending. And sure, many of the controversial earmarks in the current budget bill do sound porky, like $332,500 for a school sidewalk in Franklin, Texas, or $75,000 for a Totally Teen Zone in Albany, Georgia. McCain has twittered snide comments about $2.1 million for the Center for Grape Genetics ("quick peel me a grape"), $209,000 to improve blueberry production and efficiency in Georgia, $1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa. But those earmarks sound porky because they sound wasteful, not because they were earmarked; if a Department of Education bureaucrat had approved that $332,500 expenditure, it would still sound like a lot of money for a sidewalk. The pig odor would still stink if it wasn't technically "pork."

The point is that most Americans think of pork as waste. That's why Republicans called the stimulus bill "Porkulus," even though it had no actual earmarks. The fact that money is earmarked does not prove it is wasted, and the fact that money is not earmarked does not prove it is not wasted. This is common sense, when you think about it. Earmarks got their name from the bygone practice of branding the ears of livestock to identify their owners, but no one would have thought a pig without an earmark was kosher. The vast majority of wasteful federal spending — sprawl roads and bridges to nowhere, corporate welfare for agribusinesses and Big Oil and King Coal, bloated health care costs, and so on — is done within the regular appropriations process. It's not as soundbite-ready as a $238,000 earmark for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, but it's a lot more expensive.

It is true, as McCain pointed out during his unsuccessful effort to delete all the earmarks in the spending bill, that earmark abuses have landed politicians like former Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham in prison. Those abuses were especially rampant when congressmen were permitted to slip earmarks into legislation without taking responsibility — non-earmarked earmarks, in a way — but Obama helped spearhead an effort to eliminate that practice after Democrats took back Congress. It is also true that earmarks can be a sneaky way for boondoggles to bypass hearings, public comment periods, cost-benefit analyses and other forms of scrutiny. But the Constitution does give Congress the power of the purse, and earmarks can sometimes be the only way for congressmen to force recalcitrant bureaucracies to take on worthy projects. For example, most federal transportation aid goes directly to state agencies with monomaniacal attachments to building sprawl roads; maybe that's why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has an earmark for a bike path in the latest budget.

It is even true, as this Taxpayers for Common Sense database makes clear, that the most prolific earmarkers tend to be the most egregious porkers — Republicans like Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Christopher Bond of Missouri and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Democrats like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who never met an earmark he couldn't name after himself. But earmarks are not the only way they bring home the bacon. In fact, the earmarks in the current budget bill amount to only $7.7 billion, less than 2% of the overall spending. But they will get 98% of the attention. This happens every time Congress passes a spending bill; the media focus on earmarks, which often sound funny and vaguely scandalous, while ignoring the rest of the substance of the bill.

That's a shame, because this is an interesting budget. It was originally drafted last year, but congressional Democrats didn't want to send it to President Bush, so it will only fund the government from April through September. Still, it's a real window into their priorities: a 21% increase for worthy low-income nutrition programs, a 13% hike for the already bloated Agriculture Department, a long-overdue 10% boost for Amtrak, cuts for Bush-era abstinence and foreign aid programs, zero for a Bush-era reading program plagued by cronyism and mismanagement. The budget is also notable for what it does not include: any reforms of the haphazard ways Congress throws money at infrastructure, agriculture, energy, health care and other big-ticket spending items.

That's a real problem. Obama recently released his 2010 budget outline, which addresses those larger issues. He also pledged a new framework for additional earmark reforms for 2010. But it's lame for Obama's aides to dismiss the 2009 budget as leftover business from the Bush era. He's the President. He wasn't elected to ignore the leftover business from the Bush era. He ought to be taking heat for punting — not only on the earmarks, but on the other $402 billion worth of government spending. But his critics, from McCain on the Senate floor to Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, keep harping on earmarks and almost nothing else.

They're missing the point. Earmarks are the grimy political grease that helps our spending motor run. They're not completely innocuous — $7.7 billion is real money — but the real problem right now is the motor. It's as inefficient as Georgia blueberries.

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