Monday, March 9

Earmark Education

It turns out I never truly understood the earmark debate. I thought I did but I just read a piece by Stan Collender that schooled me (for which I am thankful). h/t Matthew Yglesias

Second, the talk that you can reduce federal spending by eliminating earmarks is flat wrong.For years, lawyers and analysts have tried and failed to come up with a standard definition for “earmark.” But there is no dispute about one thing: All an earmark does is allocate part of the funds being appropriated. That means that eliminating an earmark only eliminates the allocation and not the spending. The appropriation, the law that actually provides the funds for the government to spend stays at the original level regardless of whether the earmark stays in place. The only thing that changes is that the decision about how and where to spend the funds shifts from Congress to the executive branch agency that administers the funds. And that, rather than lower spending, is what the earmark debate really is about. Regardless of what is said about “fiscal responsibility” and spending the people’s money wisely, the issue is not about how much to spend. The dispute is over who gets to make the decision.


Third, eliminating earmarks doesn’t automatically mean that the decisions about how and where to spend the funds will be any less political or more objective. The notion that executive branch departments and agencies make spending decisions solely by applying rigid criteria about which projects are more worthwhile than others is naive.


It makes no sense to think that a bureaucracy headed by an appointee who was selected to implement the president’s agenda will do something different than what the administration wants ... or that the White House would allow it. The decision about how and where the funds will be spent will be just as political as if it was made for an individual Member of Congress. Fourth, the ultimate irony of the earmark debate is that the fiscal conservatives who are the biggest supporters of eliminating earmarks are also the ones who typically express the greatest dissatisfaction with the federal bureaucracy. But the bureaucracy making the decisions would be the result if the campaign to end earmarks were successful. Federal departments and agencies would end up having the sole power to decide how to allocate the funds included in appropriations, and the decisions would be every bit as political as the ones made with earmarks.

I wish I knew all of this during the campaign. I wish others knew about it as well. Especially you-know-who.

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