Friday, November 12, 2010

Debating the wisdom of earmarks

A couple of days ago, on The Corner, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn made the case against earmarks. Today, also on The Corner, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe argues in favor of them. I don't understand the issue well enough to have an informed opinion, so I'd normally look to just such men -- both are reliably conservative and have some credibility with me on fiscal matters -- for guidance. With them coming down on opposite sides of the issue, and each presenting what seem to be reasonable arguments, it's tough to know what's best.

The crux of the matter seems to be what happens to the money appropriated by an earmark if that earmark is removed. Inhofe explains that the money still gets spent; it's just that, without the earmark, Congress can no longer control how it's spent. That decision gets made by someone farther down the food chain.

I remember being frustrated by this practice when the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" issue arose. Like many Americans, I wrote my representatives to complain about my tax dollars being spent in such dubious and extra-constitutional ways. Several weeks later I received a triumphant response from then Senator Judd Gregg suggesting that I'd "pleased to learn" that my precious tax dollars had been spared as the "Bridge to Nowhere" was no more. In fact, I wasn't at all "pleased to learn" this, because I had been following the issue and knew that, while the earmark had been defeated, the money was still sent right along to Alaska. The requirement that it be spent on that particular bridge had been removed, but the money was now theirs to do with as they pleased. Presumably they could even elect to spend it on the same damn bridge.

So Inhofe makes a good point: eliminating the earmark doesn't actually save the money. In a sense, it makes the problem worse, since the transparency is lost. At least with the earmark, tax payers know how their money is being spent.

But Coburn makes makes an equally good counter-point: it doesn't have to be that way! There's no law that says Congress has to fork over the money once the earmark is removed. And if earmarks are banned at the outset, there's no reason that money has to be allocated in the first place. Coburn argues that, if Congress is serious about cutting spending, they need to show it by banning earmarks and then by tightening up the purse strings.

I'm not convinced it's as simple as all that. In fact I'm sure it's not. Congress does things in very wacky ways, and they are very creative at finding ways to waste our money. But while I'm not at all optimistic that it will do a bit of good, on the face of it, I find Coburn's case for banning earmarks a little more compelling at this point.

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