The United States Office of Management and Budget provides one definition of earmarks: “Earmarks are funds provided by the Congress for projects, programs, or grants where the purported congressional direction (whether in statutory text, report language, or other communication) circumvents otherwise applicable merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the executive branch to manage its statutory and constitutional responsibilities pertaining to the funds allocation process.”
What is the difference between earmark spending and “regular” government spending? Speaking on the floor of the House in March 2009, Ron Paul, the libertarian member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas and Republican presidential candidate in 2008, made these remarks:
In reality what we need are more earmarks. Just think of the 350 billion dollars that we recently appropriated and gave to the Treasury Department. Now everybody is running around and saying, “We don’t know where the money went, we just gave it to them in a lump sum.” We should have earmarked everything. It should have been designated where the money is going. So instead of too many earmarks we don’t have enough earmarks. Transparency is the only way we can get to the bottom of this and if you make everything earmarked it would be much better.
This is a key distinguishing characteristic of earmark spending: legislators, rather than agencies like the Treasury Department, decide how and where the money is spent.
According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, earmarks are estimated to cost $11 billion in the current fiscal year (2010), which is down from $15 billion the year before. The Washington newspaper The Hill warns, however, that some of this decrease is due to a change in classification of some spending.
While some view earmarks and their elimination as a defining issue, we must remember that the level of earmark spending is relatively small compared to the entire federal budget. The 2010 budget calls for spending $3.55 trillion, so earmarks account for 0.3 percent of this amount. Considering discretionary spending only — and earmarks are discretionary — earmarks are 0.8 percent of $1.368 trillion planned discretionary spending.
This is not to say that this spending is not harmful and should not be eliminated.
Paul — accurately self-described as “America’s leading voice for limited constitutional government, low taxes, free markets, and a return to sound monetary policies” — defends his insertion of earmarks into appropriations bills. In an article titled Earmarks Don’t Add Up, Paul explained why:
The total level of spending is determined by the Congressional leadership and the appropriators before any Member has a chance to offer any amendments. Members’ requests are simply recommendations to allocate parts of that spending for certain items in that members’ district or state. If funds are not designated, they revert to non-designated spending controlled by bureaucrats in the executive branch. In other words, when a designation request makes it into the budget, it subtracts funds out of what is available to the executive branch and bureaucrats in various departments, and targets it for projects that the people and their representatives request in their districts. If a congressman does not submit funding requests for his district the money is simply spent elsewhere. To eliminate all earmarks would be to further consolidate power in the already dominant executive branch and not save a penny.
A spokesman for House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, was quoted in The Hill article as saying “Earmarks represent less than 1 percent of the federal budget, and they don’t add a dime to it — they are simply a way for Congress to direct funding that would otherwise be directed by administration officials.”
So here we have both liberal and conservative legislators defending the system.
It goes without saying that we need to reform this process. Currently, it allows members to say that since the money’s going to be spent somewhere, let’s spend it in my district. The motivation of members is that since their districts are taxed to send the money to Washington, they need to fight to get their districts’ fair share back — and some more, for good measure. This used to be one of the measures of success of a Congressman.
But the rise of federal spending and indebtedness has been one of the primary motivating factors of the tea party movement, and earmarks are a favorite target of conservative ire and anger.
So how do the two veteran Kansas Congressmen rank on earmarks and “pork” spending? The Club for Growth compiles a scorecard called the RePORK Card. This measures votes on “68 anti-pork amendments” in the 2009 Congress. Club Executive Director David Keating writes “The RePORK Card will help taxpayers measure the dedication of their representatives to changing the culture of corruption that surrounds pork-barrel spending.”
For 2009, Moran scored 96 percent, voting against 65 of the 68 measures. Tiahrt scored 29 percent, voting against 20 of the 68.
In the previous year for this project (2007), the two representatives’ scores were much closer: Moran scored four percent, while Tiahrt scored zero percent.
According to analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, Tiahrt was responsible for 13 “solo” earmarks in the 2010 budget, totaling $5,550,000 in spending. Moran was close behind with eight earmarks with a total value of $5,150,000. Solo earmarks are defined as “The total of earmarks on which only that member’s name appears.”
Considering solo earmarks and earmarks with other members, Tiahrt notched spending of $63,400,000, with Moran at $18,600,000. These earmarks are defined as “The total of earmarks on which that member’s name appears, either by itself or with other members. TCS does not split an earmark.”
In a recent forum of candidates for the Republican Party nomination for United States Congress from the fourth district of Kansas sponsored by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, candidates were asked about earmarks.
(The candidates and their campaign websites are Wichita businessman Jim Anderson, Wichita businessman Wink Hartman, Wichita businessman Mike Pompeo, Latham engineer Paij Rutschman, and Kansas Senator Jean Schodorf.)
Rutschman said representatives want to do things that are in the interest of their states, but we should not pass earmarks that are detrimental to the nation.
Schodorf said that the appropriation process should be transparent, but that we need to cut spending today.
Anderson said that he is against earmarks, saying that the process provides for corruption of the political process. He would support legislation outlawing the process.
Hartman said he is totally against earmarks, noting that many people think that earmarks are good when they “make your grass turn green,” but a “bridge to nowhere” is different. He seconded Anderson’s concern about corruption.
Pompeo said he is against earmarks, saying that if “safe roads make good sense, we in Kansas can figure out how to fund them.” He agreed with concerns about corruption.