Monday, March 16, 2009
Right or wrong, Congressional earmarks are here to stay
Politicians on both the left and the right have made a political football out of Congressional earmark spending. That earmark spending is when individual members of the United States House of Representatives or the United States Senate insert provisions in various spending bills that allocate federal money for a specific project back in their home states or districts.
That practice has the Washington, DC, chattering classes in frenzy. The Obama Administration joins conservative Republicans in criticizing earmarking, but doing very little about it. There are several reasons both sides talk against it but let earmarking happen.
First, there is the national discussion of politics versus the local political realities. The national outrage at earmarking is tempered with the local outrage of a member of Congress not being able to get federal money to help repair a bridge or buy a fire engine for a town and things of the like. Voters might be outraged at money earmarked for a project in some far away state, but they are usually happy to get the earmark money for projects close to home. As such, a member of either house of Congress might get blasted by President Obama or Fox News for inserting an earmark for a local project, but the people who elect that member of Congress will be grateful to get the money. Indeed, some even contend that Congressional earmarks are a protection of local rights in that some bureaucrat in Washington does not decide if federal money should be spent to repair the local bridge, but the local Congressman does.
Further, that political factor is stronger than the actual cost of earmarks. Congressional earmarks for local projects, if all added together, still are a small percentage of the federal money spent in the budget. In other words, earmarking is a tool that members of Congress can use to serve their constituents/help their re-election campaigns,(take your pick), that are not at a high enough cost to actually force the reform various folks on the right and left are calling for. The average guy sits around and says, “If Congress can give hundreds of billions to banks that messed up, why can’t my Congressman find some money to fix the bridge down the street?”
That is the political reality. Washington pundits on the right and the left will talk about earmarks and how horrible that they think they are. But, when it comes down to the districts and states that vote in the Congress, there is no will to change the process. Thus it will not happen soon. If Social Security is the “Third Rail” of American politics in that it can not be touched, than realistically, earmarks are the “Fourth Rail.” No member of Congress, on the right or left, really wants to tell his constituents why he voted to bail out AIG, but did not work for money for the local bridge or fire engine. If we lived in an idealist world, earmarks would not happen. But, we live in the real world, full of real politics that go beyond think thank studies and pundit columns. In that real world, right or wrong, earmarks by members of Congress are here to stay.