Monday, February 12, 2007

Earmarks: Threat or Menace?

I spent this past week at the University of Akron, for my participation this year in the Congress to Campus program. I worked with former Rep. Mike Parker (D-MS, then R-MS). Ohio, and then Pennsylvania, were in the middle of a major cold wave; Mike and I did a radio interview one morning, and the announcer cheerfully said it was 6 degrees outside, so I decided against walking 8 blocks across campus to check out the recreational pool. Why they sent a guy from Mississippi and a guy from Arizona to Akron when it was 6 degrees, I don't really know. But it was a lot of fun; I'm a big Zips fan now, and Mike Parker is an amazing storyteller, one of those guys who makes everybody else funnier, too.

And now I'm filled with zeal for the Article I branch. The working headline was "Earmarks: Threat or Menace? Dressing Up Politics In 'Good Government' Clothes" but my editor liked the Shakespearean theme instead. He also let me keep the prunes analogy (Are three enough? Are five too many?) The newspaper version is live for 13 more days.

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 11, 2007

I come not to praise earmarks, but to bury them. The evil that earmarks do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with earmarks.

It's the latest seemingly-neutral good-government reform cause, stamping out special congressional spending designations in appropriations bills. They're wasteful, inefficient, not transparent, and relentlessly political. And like many things in government and in life, they certainly can be -- and were -- widely abused.

But after spending three days with a former GOP member of the U.S. House who served on the Appropriations Committee (as part of the College-to-Campus program, talking with college students about politics and about public service), the contrarian in me wants everyone to reconsider the current blanket condemnation of earmarks.


My GOP friend noted that one cabinet department's appropriations bills have had zero earmarks: The Department of Homeland Security.

But is there a worse-run federal department? The 22 agencies within the department still don't have a secure email system. Without basic communications, information still stays in silos. And their priorities still elude me; we don't screen cargo but they're keeping us safe from airplane passengers carrying coffee.

If your congressman believes that an executive branch agency is acting stupidly, there are two ways to fix it. Congress could pass a law, which is always difficult; the system is designed, in the Constitution itself, with many ways to stop anything from happening, all of which have to be overcome for action. The shortcut, which only works in cases where funds have to be appropriated, is for Congress to insert a provision in a spending bill. An earmark!

The Homeland Security email system problem could be fixed by the Bush administration, but they're not doing it. Congress could put an earmark into the Department's annual appropriations bill that would cut off all funding if the Department didn't create a secure email system within 90 days, and that certainly would focus the executive branch's energies on that priority. But with the internal congressional decision to ban earmarks for homeland security, Congress took itself out of the game.

A total ban on earmarks is a shift in power from the legislative to the executive branch. If you think that the executive is the source of all wisdom, and that elected representatives in Congress only detract from the perfection of the president's management, then you should ban earmarks. But the Bush administration doesn't seem to spend much effort on detail-oriented management of federal agencies, so perhaps they could benefit from additional insight from other sources, particularly elected representatives from a co-equal branch of government? Sure, there's no guarantee that Congress will do better, but since the standard for comparison is the "heck of a job" Bush administration, the bar is set pretty low.

Why do people who complain most bitterly about Washington decision-making and the need for local control simultaneously want to centralize all spending decisions in Washington by eliminating the most effective way for elected representatives from the rest of the country to change those priorities at the margin? It's because they prefer the executive branch to the legislative branch, because they think they'll control the executive but not necessarily the legislative.


It's just like term limits, a 1980's fixation when conventional wisdom held that the GOP had a lock on the White House but Democrats always would control Congress. But once Republicans took the majority in 1994, term limits disappeared -- although if Democrats hold control of Congress in 2008, just watch them return into vogue.

There are certainly stupid and wasteful earmarks, just as there are stupid and wasteful executive spending decisions. And like prunes, too many earmarks aren't good for the system. But the claim that eliminating all earmarks will improve the quality of government decisions isn't ideologically neutral; like term limits, it's also a political gambit to shift power from the legislative to executive. People who see the politics in everything else should recognize it in the anti-earmarks campaign, too.

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