Put Earmarks in Perspective, by Thomas E. Mann, Senior Fellow, Brookings: It is hard to take seriously a political opposition whose major antidote to the most serious and frightening financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression is a rhetorical crusade against congressional earmarks.
Sen. John McCain took to the Senate floor Monday to unleash his fury at the 9,000 earmarks — “wasteful, disgraceful, corrupting … pork barrel spending” — that are included in a $410 billion omnibus spending bill for the current budget year. …
But dramatic calls for an abolition of earmarks, by law or presidential veto, are futile and counterproductive. Congress has the constitutional power of the purse and legitimately defends its authority to allocate public resources. Given the enormity of the economic and financial problems facing the country, Obama would be foolish to engage Congress in a battle over earmarks.
Earmarks constitute less than 1 percent of the federal budget. In most cases, they don’t add to federal expenditures but merely allow Congress to direct a small fraction of program funding that would otherwise be allocated by formula or grant competition. Abolishing all earmarks would therefore have a trivial effect on the level of spending and budget deficits. While earmark reform and reduction is a worthy cause, it is a relatively minor one. It would do nothing to slow the rate of federal spending or improve our long-term budget outlook. Moreover, hyperbolic attacks on earmarks do a disservice to the public, encouraging people to concentrate way too much attention and energy on a largely symbolic issue and ignore the critical decisions that we face in the months and years ahead.
In an effort to stimulate an economy threatened by deflation and severe recession, federal spending will increase dramatically over the next several years. The challenge is to see that these new funds are expended in the most responsible way possible. Beefing up our public management capacity — in contracting, financial accountability, program evaluation — and developing oversight systems are the highest priorities. Same with efforts under way to stabilize the financial markets. Then there are the daunting challenges of designing and implementing new systems to restrain the cost and increase the coverage of health care and to shift to a low-carbon economy, to say nothing of grappling with a huge, long-term fiscal imbalance.
In this most threatening and challenging policy environment, it is time for earmarks to be put in their proper perspective and for politicians in both parties to get serious with the public about what really lies ahead.
Here’s a graph I made during the election illustrating the same point.
Originally published at the Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.