Economy

McCain's Phony Earmark Ploy

McCain promises to slash earmarks and save us money. But earmarks are a tiny fraction of the federal budget -- less than 1 percent in 2008.
If elected, John McCain pledges to veto any bill with earmarks. McCain touts his opposition to earmarks as a crusade against corruption and waste. However, some observers suspect that McCain's pledge to fight earmarks is just another power grab for the executive branch.

"I got an old ink pen, my friends, and the first pork-barrel-laden earmark, big spending bill that comes across my desk, I will veto it. You will know their names. I will make them famous, and we'll stop this corruption," McCain said at a campaign stop in Washington, D.C., this week.

McCain claims that eliminating earmarks could save the federal government $100 billion over two years without cutting funding for federal agencies. This claim is dubious at best. If McCain were to make good on his promise, it would effectively be an assault on the power of the legislative branch. "No president likes earmarks because they impinge on the latitude of the executive branch to spend on the things they want to fund," says Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who has written extensively on earmarks.

So, just what are these earmarks we hear so much about? It turns out, even the experts aren't sure. Basically, an earmark is money that's directed for a specific program or project. When McCain rails against earmarks, it's safe to say that he's only objecting to money targeted by Congress, not money set aside by the president or requested by federal agencies that serve under the executive branch.

"It's hard to say how much federal money is spent on earmarks because there is no formal or widely accepted definition," says James Horney, director of federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Horney notes that when the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service tried to estimate the amount of money spent through earmarks, the analysts had to come up with a different definition for each of the 13 appropriations bills they studied.

Even McCain's advisers aren't sure where he got the $100 billion figure, but the number is probably from the CRS study, which concluded that the federal government spends about $67 billion dollars a year on earmarks, an unusually high estimate. The number is so high because the study counted virtually every targeted expenditure as an earmark. For example, Horney explains that the CRS study counted "practically all our foreign aid money" as an earmark because the appropriations bill sets aside different pots of money for different countries. "Aid to Israel is specified in that bill," says Horney. "That's almost certainly not what John McCain is talking about. He doesn't want to cut aid to Israel."

Defense appropriations and foreign aid account for the lion's share of the $67 billion. Given McCain's pledge not to cut defense spending, it's unclear how he could save $50 billion a year by eliminating earmarks.

Earmarks are additions to appropriations bills that specify how that money is going to be spent. Typically, these riders don't authorize new spending. Let's say an appropriations bill sets aside $500 million for road construction. A member might add an earmark stipulating that $10 million of that money will be spent on a road in his district. Eliminating the earmark wouldn't save money overall because that $10 million will go to road projects one way or the other. The only question is who will choose which roads will be built. When the earmark for the infamous Bridge to Nowhere was canceled, Sarah Palin's administration spent that money on other transportation projects.

If earmarks were abolished, the president and his appointees at federal agencies would decide which roads to build. The argument for taking discretion away from Congress and giving it to the president and federal agencies is that dispassionate experts can make the decision with the good of the whole country in mind, whereas legislators have a vested interest in securing money for their own districts.

But Horney argues that while expert input is valuable in some cases, the president can be just as politicized as Congress when it comes to spending. "It's not clear to me that it's more democratic or better to have all the decisions made by the president and federal agencies, instead of elected representatives," he says.

Only a fraction of federal spending is allocated as earmarks in any case. Lilly estimates that earmarks account for "less than 2 percent of discretionary federal spending and a little more than half of 1 percent of the annual federal budget." "None of this adds up to big money," Horney stresses. "The Office of Management and Budget's latest estimate says that the earmarks in 2008 totaled $16.5 billion, or six-tenths of 1 percent of the budget."

McCain is doing his best to equate earmarks with wasteful spending. Certainly, earmarks are used to steer money toward legislators' home districts, and there have been some well-publicized cases in which those dollars were not spent wisely. However, part of a legislator's job is to be an advocate for his or her district. If politicians bring home the bacon, constituents are more likely to send them back to Washington. That's democracy.

Earmarks are frequently derided as "pork" and "pet projects." But earmarked spending is only as wise or as wasteful as the project itself. If you don't like the project or the politician, you can say he's cadging federal dollars to get re-elected. If you like the project and support the politician, you say that the earmarker is doing his job by looking out for constituents.

Representatives may have a better idea what their constituents need than bureaucrats in D.C. Lawmakers work closely with state and local leaders to find out what their districts need. As mayor of Wasilla and later as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin worked closely with Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens to secure tens of millions of dollars in earmarks for her tiny town.

Earmarks support libraries, police departments, schools and laboratories across the country. They also fund giveaways to well-connected corporations, favors to campaign contributors and boondoggles like the notorious Bridge to Nowhere. Legislators are now more accountable for the earmarks they sponsor, thanks to tougher transparency requirements instituted in 2007. Ultimately, it's up to the electorate to decide whether a representative is making good decisions.

"It's way too simplistic to say that earmarks are a bad thing," Horney says.

What would be the alternative to earmarks? If they were eliminated, Congress would have to defer to the president and federal agencies to decide how to spend the money those agencies allocated. It's not clear that this would result in better decisions or greater fiscal responsibility. The Bush administration has packed federal agencies with political hacks seeking to advance the president's agenda.

Lilly questions whether McCain is serious about his campaign promise to veto all bills with earmarks. "Previous presidents have found that they had a lot more to worry about than the 2 percent of discretionary spending that was earmarked," he says.

By focusing on earmarks, McCain can appear tough and fiscally responsible while ignoring much more lucrative perks for special interests, such as corporate tax credits and tax cuts for the wealthy. So-called earmark reform is just another attempt to consolidate power in the hands of the president at the expense of Congress.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is a New York writer blogging at majikthise.typepad.com