What is an "earmark" and what's wrong with them?
There was a time when the Associated Press would send newspapers a memo down the wire—the president's budget would be released on a certain date. Most newspapers would arrange for additional space and assign additional copy editors and layout people. Then the massive package of stories would arrive, complete with pie charts and bar graphs.
There would be special sidebars on appropriations for TVA and DOE, back when TVA got federal appropriations.
When's the last time you saw a package of stories on "the president's budget?"
It used to be that, whether Congress tweaked it or not, the broad outlines of the federal government's priorities were set. Budget bills went through the appropriate committees, the committees finalized them and sent them to the floor. The contents of the bills were debated within the appropriate committees and agreement was reached. When they reached the floor the body had confidence that the bills represented a broad consensus on funding priorities. Then they were passed.
There is some question whether Congress has even passed a budget this year. There are ongoing extensions of last year's budget. There are "supplemental budget" bills. There are omnibus spending bills, unread by many members and hastily scanned by staffers. Thus we find out later about a Bridge to Nowhere.
The amount of money spent on earmarks is relatively small compared to expenditures for defense, Medicare and Social Security. Eliminating them will not balance the budget.
But they are indicative of a broken process at the root of our budget deficits. When a powerful member of Congress decides to insert an "earmark" into the budget, it is legislation by a single member. The rise of earmarks is a canary in the coal mine of the lack of control over the budget process.
What's wrong with earmarks?
They often are not requested by the executive branch or the department charged with spending the money.
They bypass the traditional committee and subcommittee process where spending decisions are supposed to take place.
They allow lobbyists to cut deals with powerful members to insert benefits for their clients without public scrutiny and without committee hearings.
The most effective way to insert a special favor for a lobbyist is in an omnibus spending bill, decorated like a Christmas tree, and chock full of other special interest earmarks. This has led to more omnibus spending bills, read by no one—except the one-line items written and inserted by a lobbyist.
You can argue all you want about how to reduce the federal deficit and you do have to set some priorities. But the system is broken and earmarks are just one manifestation of the problem.
Congress should set policy, the executive should make funding recommendations and the departments should be consulted on how much money is required for the job. I do not believe, absent political pressure, that the highway department would decide to build a bridge to nowhere because the island it connects is owned by a congressman's friends.
A president could also ask the people who run various executive departments to compile lists of programs they feel have served a purpose and can now be eliminated. And these programs could be removed from the budget sent to Congress. But if special interest groups can call on members of Congress to fund pet projects independent of executive branch scrutiny and a committee hearing, is it likely we will ever get a handle on the budgeting process?
Control of the process of the federal budget would also likely mean a reduction in the size of the federal budget. The obscene amounts of money being appropriated for thousands of different purposes means there is no one, and I mean no one, who has a handle on what is in the federal budget, much less someone who knows how to control it.
Earmarks should be eliminated, not because it would solve the budget crisis, but because it would be a first step in getting back in control of the monster the federal budget has become.