Against Earmarks

Former Senator Tom Coburn once called earmarks a “gateway drug” to big government spending. He was right. Earmarks, once a small fraction of federal spending, ballooned into corrupt schemes by members of congress for often nonsensical or vanity projects. From bridges to nowhere to buildings named after spouses, your tax dollars were sought after by congressmen and their friends for personal projects.

Earmarks became so outlandish over time that a conservative revolt led to them being banned. Now some Republicans want to bring them back and are up to the typical games the left plays — re-defining and renaming. They’d have you believe, like those who claim to reject Common Core by keeping it but changing its name, that they are opposed to earmarks, but want to create congressionally controlled spending restraint on bureaucracies.

Congress already has that power.

The chief argument used by those who support the return of earmarks is that it keeps low level bureaucrats from spending your tax dollars as they wish. Superficially the argument sounds credible, but deep down there are serious problems with it. Congress has existing power to keep bureaucrats from spending your tax dollars as they wish. But congress frequently abdicates its responsibility. Congress is okay with the bureaucrats spending earmark dollars. In fact, bureaucrats were engaged in the practice during the time congressmen were also doling out earmarks. Congress could rein the practice in with Article I spending legislation and revisiting the Chevron test used by courts. Congress, however, has chosen not to. Don’t blame the bureaucrats for doing what Congress has not only let them do, but in many cases encouraged them to do so congressmen cannot be blamed.

Then there is the fact that at least for the next four years we should not have a problem with low level bureaucrats spending tax payer dollars on earmarked projects. These bureaucrats will be presided over by a Republican Chief Executive Officer. Even if they did get out of place, it is far easier to correct or replace a wayward bureaucrat than a member of Congress. The re-election rate for the latter exceeds 98%. A bureaucratic earmark, unlike a congressional earmark, can be stopped by management.

As people flirt with bringing back earmarks, we should remember our history. Earmarks were used to cajole Republicans into ever more expansive government programs. Earmarks are how George W. Bush got the prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind passed through congress. Earmarks are how all big government expansions get passed. Earmarks are often nothing more than legal bribery within Congress.

Even if you are concerned about bureaucrats spending money because congress has abdicated its responsibility to them, the problem still lies with Congress and the reality is that any bureaucratic spending pales in comparison to the congressional oligarchs’ earmarks of yester-years and, more importantly, the bureaucratic spending amounts to a single molecule of water in the bucket of massive federal programs that would never have been created without the congressional bribery through earmarks.

The addicts are restless and hoping to get out of rehab and back on the drug. Republicans just won an election to drain Washington’s swamp. They do not now need to direct the sewer into the swamp by re-establishing earmarks. It is not a coincidence that the chief advocates of earmarks are also the most liberal Republicans in the Congress. They know their and the left’s expansionist tendencies are dampened without earmarks. We should not give in.

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Erick Erickson

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