Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Thing About Earmarks

Ever heard the one about "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?"

The congressional earmarks saga is a tale told by charlatans trying to distract you from the Really Bad Stuff.

For those who don't follow this stuff closely, here's a simple version of how earmarks work:

1) Congress appropriates $130 billion for "Agriculture" (yes, that number is close to the current figure).

2) The Honorable Gentleman from Iowa puts an item -- an "earmark" -- in that appropriation requiring that the US Department of Agriculture $10 million of that $130 billion to fund the [the Honorable Gentleman from Iowa's name] Corn Research Center in Ames (I just made that up, but I wouldn't be surprised if it resembles a real earmark).

The case against earmarks is that they:

- Are "pork" used by incumbents to buy re-election ("I earmarked $50 million in the Defense budget to ensure that the little dials on the Army's radios would be manufactured right here in Secaucus").

- Promote corruption (Acme Guide Missile Systems, Inc. gives a congresscritter a big campaign donation or a brown paper sack full of cash; said congresscritter earmarks an even bigger amount in a way that forces it to be spent with Acme Guided Missile Systems, Inc.).

- Result in silly/extraneous spending just to bring home the bacon (I seem to recall reading that the late US Senator Robert Byrd [D-WVa] once earmarked money to restore an old store as an "historic landmark" because it was the second location in the US to sell Chanel No. 5 perfume).

All of these things may be true, but here's the case for earmarks:

- They generally constitute less than 1% of the federal government's total budget. If that rate holds true for Agriculture, call it $1.3 billion total in that particular area. All the rearing and pitching about them is mostly just a way to distract from the fact that Congress is spending $128.7 billion in non-earmarked funds on Agriculture. Think maybe there's a little fat in that bigger piece of the budget puzzle? But that doesn't get talked about, because everyone's throwing a fit about the Corn Research Center or whatever.

- They limit the power of the executive. Instead of handing Barack Obama $700 billion for "defense" and turning him loose to buy lollipops for the Russians and bombard Baghdad with packages of mail-order Swiss Colony cheese logs, Congress tells him that at least some of that money has to be spent in very particular ways. Granted, it pretty much amounts to those cheese logs going to Boeing workers in St. Louis instead, but any leash on the president, even one held by that bunch of reprobates down the street at the Capitol, is better than no leash at all.

So the two-part case for earmarks is a) they're not a big deal in the scheme of things and b) they may have at least one mildly positive feature.

I agree that that's not a very strong case, but it's a case, at least.

The important thing to remember is that all the caterwauling over it is intended to distract your attention from the 99% of the federal budget that isn't earmarked. It's pretty much a more boring version of "teh gays are gonna GETTT YEWWW!" or "Osama bin Laden may be under your bed right now -- take off your shoes and stand in front of the porno scanner, please" or "the brown people who speak Spanish are going to take your job if you don't give us another $10 billion to fight them off."

Watch the birdie.

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