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The earmark distraction

BY WILL MATTESSICH | NOVEMBER 18, 2010 7:20 AM

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Call them the earmark crusaders.

Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., took a voice vote earlier this week backing a two-year earmark moratorium. Two Democrats, Sens. Claire McCaskill and Mark Udall, have also stated their support for an earmark ban.

But the debate over an earmark moratorium is distracting Congress and the public from discussing real budget solutions, and the proposed ban would do almost nothing to fix the federal budget deficit.

Proponents of the earmark moratorium argue the earmark ban is a "huge step" toward balancing the federal budget. Unfortunately, this characterization does not fit the facts. The amount of appropriations from earmarks is relatively small.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan federal budget watchdog organization, estimates earmarks disclosed from fiscal 2010 will total $11 billion. Compare that to the federal budget deficit for fiscal year 2010 — roughly $1.2 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That means that earmarks in 2010 contributed 0.9 percent of the deficit.

If eliminating earmarks is a huge step toward balancing the federal budget, then shaving is a huge step toward weight loss.

Beyond the fiscal questions of the earmarking process, however, are questions of transparency and accountability.

"Earmarks have very little to do with the federal budget," University of Iowa political-science Associate Professor Cary Covington said. "It is much more an ethical and moral judgment."

One major ethical problem with earmarks is the disparity in the amount each state receives, which is often based solely on a representative's political power. Covington said lawmakers would most likely still be able to exert similar influence over the appropriations process if earmarks were eliminated.

Earmarking also has its benefits, especially to residents of districts receiving earmarked appropriations. Lawmakers have the closest ties to their districts, and they may be able to deliver projects closely attuned to their constituents' interests.

Much of the public only sees earmarks as a problem when they are in someone else's district, such as the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere." This type of spending has come to be called "pork-barrel spending" by its detractors. "Pork," however, is a subjective term: One person's pork is another person's vital local project.

Another fiscally conservative watchdog group, Citizens Against Government Waste, is one of the most vehement opponents of pork-barrel spending. The nonprofit group estimates $16.5 billion of pork will be allocated by the end of this year. Congress could save just as much money by trimming the Department of Defense's budget by 2.5 per cent. But the group's database of pork projects includes things such as infrastructure improvements, school funding, and research grants.

Do any Iowans want to give back the $182 million that Sens. Charles Grassley and Tom Harkin and Rep. Dave Loebsack earmarked for flood relief in 2008? What about the $13.2 million the UI has received in the past three fiscal years? Many of these projects are very helpful to states and communities.

In addition, all of the earmark money in spending bills not specifically allocated by Congress will need to be allocated by another federal office. The huge irony in the GOP caucus's decision is that the man whose office will decide how that unallocated money is spent lives on Pennsylvania Avenue and doesn't always agree with DeMint and his colleagues.

Instead of a Tea Party-fueled crusade against earmarks, lawmakers and the public should focus on improving the efficiency of mandatory spending programs, including Social Security and Medicare, which compose more than two-thirds of federal expenditures.

The earmark moratorium is a pointless political ploy. It gives lawmakers an opportunity to play off of the public fear of rampant government waste without fixing any major problems.


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