Friday, December 21, 2007

Earmarks: Bad Policy yet Good Politics

President Bush’s press conference yesterday sparked a fierce debate about pork barrel spending which has been skyrocketing over the past decade. Many regard earmarks as corruptive and wasteful, arguing that they stymie progress, thwart innovation, and generally muck up the spending process. Others point out that earmark money is at least spent in the U.S., boosts the American economy, and employs American workers.

A lot of the discourse surrounding earmarks consists of bitter, partisan blame game. President Bush chastised Democratic leaders yesterday for failing to live up to their campaign promise to curb pork barrel spending. Democrats are calling the Bush administration's attempts at eleventh hour "fiscal conservatism" hypocritical given the trillions of dollars it has drained in the Iraq war.

Amidst all this finger-pointing, there is also the never-ending debate of whether earmarks are down 25 percent according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, 43 percent as the Democratic leadership claims, or 13 percent according to the Office of Management and Budget.

Rather than get entangled in the exact magnitude of pork barrel appropriations, we would all be better served by examining what is fueling these undeniably egregious Congressional pet projects.

We need to step back from the partisan bickering and acknowledge that pork barrel spending persists today regardless of the party in power because it simply is an “excellent reelection tool”. Tom Evslin does a great job here of explaining why “earmarks are a big reason why most Americans have a low regard for congress as a whole BUT continue to reelect incumbents at an overwhelming rate.”

Earmarks are a crucial way that lawmakers channel money back home and boost their chances of reelection. Some people defend these pork barrel appropriations as allowing states to micro-manage. However, the sheer number of these projects and questionable allocations – such as bike trails and Alaska’s now-infamous “bridge to nowhere” – has amply highlighted its downright wastefulness.

Before jumping on the bandwagon to criticize the other party for not doing enough to curb this wasteful spending, we must understand that earmark projects – and the bad policies they enact – are widespread because they are good politics. As long as our lawmakers have the opportunity to score themselves some reelection credits by inserting their pet projects into massive appropriations bills, pork barrel spending will not fall… regardless of our representatives’ benign intentions.

President Bush has the wonderfully convenient opportunity to get rid of many of the earmarks tacked onto the $516 billion omnibus spending bill because he doesn’t have to worry about reelection. If we are to see any lasting reform on pork barrel spending, however, the structural incentives that encourage, even necessitate earmarks must somehow be eliminated.

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