Counter-Point: The fight against earmarks is the opening shot in a much larger battle

This is part two in a debate between Doug Mataconis, a contributor at Outside the Beltway and United Liberty, and Jason Pye, editor of United Liberty, over whether the current debate over earmarks is distraction from the larger fiscal issues facing the nation.

Over the last several years, there has been much debate in Congress over earmarking, which is the process of designating funds for a specific purpose in a spending bill. Critics of the practice call most of these earmarks “pork barrel projects.”

Earmarks are an issue for several reasons. They can distort the marketplace, allowing the government to pick winners and losers. More often than not, the cost of an earmark is greater than the benefit, a point that is especially true with mass transit projects. And there is almost no sunlight on how they are inserted into appropriations bill.

There also is not much public support for the practice. According to a CBS News poll conducted in 2007, 67 percent of the public viewed earmarks as “not acceptable.”

Members of Congress use the practice in order to secure funds for their districts and proudly point them out during their next campaign to prove they are in Washington to “bring home the bacon.” Leadership of parties in Congress will often use earmarks to entice members to vote a certain position on legislation. The 2003 expansion of Medicare and the 2007 emergency spending bill for Iraq are both examples of this practice.

“Earmarking isn’t subject to competitive bidding, congressional hearings, proper oversight or authorizations,” says Andrew Roth with the Club for Growth, a non-profit group dedicated to lower taxes and limited government.

The lack of oversight ultimately leads to corruption, as we have seen in recent years through the scandals of former Congressman Duke Cunningham and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who called the House Appropriations Committee a “favor factory.”

In 2008, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) defended the process claiming, “The Founding Fathers would be cringing to hear people talking about eliminating earmarks.” More recently, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), claimed, “Earmarks have been part of the congressional process since the founding of our country.” He also complained that removing earmarks would somehow cede the constitutional authority of Congress to appropriate funds.

Inhofe has also argued that eliminating earmarks wouldn’t result in any actual savings. This is a point disputed by his colleague, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK):

This argument has serious logical inconsistencies. The fact is earmarks do spend real money. If they didn’t spend money, why defend them? Stopping an activity that spends money does result in less spending. It’s that simple. For instance, Congress spent $16.1 billion on pork in Fiscal Year 2010. If Congress does not do earmarks in 2011, we could save $16.1 billion. In no way is Congress locked into to shifting that $16.1 billion to other programs unless it wants to.

On Inhofe’s broader point about that Congress would be giving up its constitutional authority to appropriate. Nothing could be further from the truth, and as Jim Harper has noted, Inhofe actually misused Federalist #58 to come up with his excuse:

The “power of the purse” refers to the fact that revenue measures must originate in the popularly elected House, strengthening its hand against the Senate, whose membership was to be selected by state legislatures. But he is right to castigate the earmark opponents who have thrown buckets of taxpayer money into the wind when Washington, D.C., has lately spun itself into a whirl.

President James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, explicitly rejected what we would consider to be pork barrel spending when he vetoed the Bonus Bill of 1817, which would have spent revenues from the Second Bank of the United States on “internal improvements.”

The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers, or that it falls by any just interpretation with the power to make laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution those or other powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States.

“The power to regulate commerce among the several States” can not include a power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water courses in order to facilitate, promote, and secure such commerce without a latitude of construction departing from the ordinary import of the terms strengthened by the known inconveniences which doubtless led to the grant of this remedial power to Congress.

To refer the power in question to the clause “to provide for common defense and general welfare” would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation, as rendering the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper. Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms “common defense and general welfare” embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust. It would have the effect of subjecting both the Constitution and laws of the several States in all cases not specifically exempted to be superseded by laws of Congress, it being expressly declared “that the Constitution of the United States and laws made in pursuance thereof shall be the supreme law of the land, and the judges of every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” Such a view of the Constitution, finally, would have the effect of excluding the judicial authority of the United States from its participation in guarding the boundary between the legislative powers of the General and the State Governments, inasmuch as questions relating to the general welfare, being questions of policy and expediency, are unsusceptible of judicial cognizance and decision.

I am not unaware of the great importance of roads and canals and the improved navigation of water courses, and that a power in the National Legislature to provide for them might be exercised with signal advantage to the general prosperity. But seeing that such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution, and believing that it can not be deduced from any part of it without an inadmissible latitude of construction and reliance on insufficient precedents; believing also that the permanent success of the Constitution depends on a definite partition of powers between the General and the State Governments, and that no adequate landmarks would be left by the constructive extension of the powers of Congress as proposed in the bill, I have no option but to withhold my signature from it, and to cherishing the hope that its beneficial objects may be attained by a resort for the necessary powers to the same wisdom and virtue in the nation which established the Constitution in its actual form and providently marked out in the instrument itself a safe and practicable mode of improving it as experience might suggest.

Earmarking, in its current form, is a fairly recent phenomenon. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, earmarks were not used extensively until the 1980s. In 1991, there were 546 earmarks totaling $3.1 billion. By 2005, there were nearly 14,000 earmarks at a cost of $27.3 billion. The number of earmarks decreased in 2006, but the total cost of the earmarks actually went up to $29 billion.

The most well-known earmark is the Gravina Island Bridge in Ketchikan, Alaska, which is more commonly referred to as the Bridge to Nowhere. The bridge was part of the pork-laden 2005 highway bill.

This $223 million pork project, supported by the late Sen. Ted Stevens, would have replaced a ferry that transports some of Gravina Island’s 50 residents (yes, 50) to the mainland in Ketchikan, which is home to Alaska’s second largest airport.

Stevens, a prominent supporter of earmarks who was defeated in 2008 due to corruption, threatened to resign from the Senate when the project was threatened. The funding remained for Alaska, but the specific earmark for the bridge was removed. Alaska’s newly elected Governor, Sarah Palin, killed the project last year; despite her initial support of the project.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has targeted many earmarks through a series of amendments to spending bills over the last several years to strip funding for ridiculous earmarks such as $50,000 for the National Mule and Packers Museum in California, $200,000 for the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, and $150,000 for the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, South Carolina.

Flake wrote an excellent editorial in the Washington Post on Friday explaining how the practice is actually harmful to Congress:

Those who view earmarking as an expression of the “congressional prerogative” sell Congress short of its preeminent role as the first branch of government. As the defenders of earmarking are fond of saying, earmarks represent less than 2 percent of all federal spending. Precisely! By focusing on a measly 2 percent of spending, we have given up effective oversight on the remaining 98 percent.

This lopsided exchange can be examined empirically. As the number of earmarks has risen significantly over the past two decades, the amount of oversight exercised by the House Appropriations Committee - as measured by the number of hearings held, witnesses called, etc. - has declined substantially. It is as if Congress has called a truce with the executive branch: Don’t hassle us about our 2 percent, and we’ll offer only token interference with your 98 percent. Such a poor trade has not been made since the days of Esau.

I understand the arguments made by Doug Mataconis and other fiscal conservatives. However, the hardcore fighters against earmarks, such as Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Jeff Flake, are using this issue to shine light on wasteful spending. If we can’t win the fight on earmarks, we’re not going to win the fights on other spending battles. We’re not going to slash the budget and we’re most certainly not going to reform the entitlements that represent a threat to our fiscal security.

You have to start this battle to restore fiscal sanity somewhere. Why not start it by making a principled stand on earmarks?

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