Thursday, December 2, 2010

Killing earmarks won't slay deficit dragon -- Dec. 2, 2010 column


Everybody agrees taming the deficit is going to hurt.

“The problem is real. The solution will be painful. There is no easy way out. Everything must be on the table. And Washington must lead.” So say members of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in “The Moment of Truth” report.

Co-chairmen Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and Alan Simpson, a Republican, took aim at dozens of sacred cows in the 60-page report. They called for curbing military spending, raising taxes by nearly $1 trillion by 2020, lifting the retirement age to 69 in 2075 and increasing the gas tax. Many called the plan dead on arrival.

Bowles, former Clinton White House chief of staff, and Simpson, former senator from Wyoming, know their solutions are politically unpalatable. They hope at least to start a serious national conversation.

A first step toward having an adult conversation, though, would be to stop the pretense that killing earmarks will save billions of dollars.

The myth is on page 27 of the commission’s report: “Eliminate all congressional earmarks,” for a savings of “at least $16 billion in 2015.”

Alas, killing earmarks won’t save a nickel.

Earmarks are the special spending projects lawmakers put in for their districts. Earmarks are highly unpopular, especially when other people get them, but they don’t add to spending. They just redirect it.

Commission member Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called out the earmarks’ proposal Wednesday at the commission hearing where the report was released. The measure “reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the appropriations process works,” he said.

“I’m sorry you included it,” Durbin told Bowles and Simpson.

Durbin, an appropriations subcommittee chairman, explained that earmarks – which amount to one-half to one percent of appropriations – exist within overall spending limits.

As the proposal’s presence in the report suggests, anti-earmark pressure around the country is intense. Tea party activists and others hate earmarks, which they believe speak to the arrogance of power. Earmarks were an issue in the midterm campaigns, and President Obama is an anti-earmark convert.

In one of their first actions after the election, congressional Republicans approved a two-year moratorium on earmarks. After that, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., declared the emperor wore no clothes. Lugar, who opposed the moratorium, said, “Eliminating earmarks does not reduce spending.”

In a statement, Lugar said, “At a moment in which over-spending by the federal government perpetuates annual deficits to over $1 trillion a year, the Congress is being asked to debate a congressional earmark spending resolution which will save no money, even while giving the impression that the Congress is attempting to meet the public demand to reduce spending.”

Congress holds the power of the purse under the Constitution, and Lugar argues that Congress, by giving up the ability to direct spending, is surrendering its constitutional authority to bureaucrats and the Obama administration., the fact-checking Web site, examined Lugar’s statement and said it was “mostly true.”

“Since earmarks are simply provisions of larger spending bills that direct where lawmakers want the money to go, earmarks, strictly speaking, do not increase the cost of a spending bill – they only tell where portions of that spending should go,” PolitiFact said.

Some analysts think earmarks encourage lawmakers to approve higher budgets so they can be assured of money for their pet projects, so eliminating earmarks could reduce pressure on spiraling budgets, PolitiFact said.

The “Moment of Truth” reports that for fiscal 2010, Congress approved 9,000 earmarks.

“Many of these earmarks are doled out by members of Congress for parochial concerns in their districts and to special interest groups.” The report cites three examples: $1.9 million for a Pleasure Beach Water Taxi Service in Connecticut, $900,000 for a program encouraging Oklahoma students to role-play how to make tough choices as members of Congress, and $238,000 for ancient-style sailing canoes in Hawaii.

These earmarks surely do sound like silly spending tricks, but worthiness is a different issue than cost-savings. Adults coping with real problems can take pain, but they need real solutions, not symbolic gestures.

As for the earmark moratorium, Alan Simpson himself is no fan. He told reporters last month that the ban was as inconsequential as a “sparrow belch.”

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. In her column this week, Ms Mercer makes an important contribution to the discussion on reducing the deficit. I, for one, did not understand that ending earmarks, per se, would not reduce expenditures, but merely redirect them. This being the case, why are our members of congress making such a fuss about ending the practice? Perhaps, if earmarks are eliminated, the members of Congress would be less inclined to support overall appropriations. But as Ms Mercer points out, this is not likely.

    Thank you Ms Mercer for your throwing light on a widely misunderstood Congressional practice. We need more of this kind of clear, succinct, and unbiased analysis of current events. Nice job.

  2. If eliminating earmarks doesn't do away with "unworthy" spending, what will? Get rid of "unworthy" congress persons may be the answer. The Nov elections may have been a good start, we shall see.