In Defense of Earmarks

Washington Matters

In Defense of Earmarks

Enough already with the earmarks. It's a silly waste of time to make such a big deal of them when there are so many more important economic issues demanding attention. Sure, they can be a problem -- especially when they lead to ridiculous inequities, such as Alaska getting way more than a fair share just because its representatives have seniority. And there's the potential for abuse, with members using them to curry favor for supporters.

But the truth is there are plenty of good and smart let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Consider that there's already been a lot of reform of the process. Until a few years ago, earmarks were secret and therefore moved completely under the radar. No more. Today, every earmark request is made public before Congress votes. That includes the name of the member requesting it and the name of the company or entity that would benefit from it. It's all in a government database on the Internet.

Transparency doesn't ensure fairness, but it does help eliminate outright graft and the really silly stuff. And remember somebody has to decide what project will get funded when money is appropriated for research or whatever. Do you really think an unnamed bureaucrat sitting in a darkened office always makes a smarter decision than the congressman who knows what his district needs? As Jonathan Rauch points out in an excellent column today on the good and bad sides of earmarks, too many government programs are governed by rigid, outmoded rules that perpetuate old mistakes. Too often what got funded last year will get more funding next if agencies were left to do as they wish.


And don't kid yourself that ending earmarks will end the influence of powerful committee chairmen. Even when there's no earmark, there's nothing to stop a chairman from picking up the phone and calling an agency to put in a word for a favored project. And what agency will ignore the request of the chairman who determines its budget?

So let's accept that while the system has its warts and try to limit the damage, let's not go overboard worrying about it. The alternatives are no panacea.  And after all, earmarks account for less than half of 1% of total government spending.