Now that Mitch McConnell has reluctantly given in to Republican insurgents and agreed that earmarks must be banned in the new Congress, wiseacres on the left are having a big laugh about how ineffectual the whole exercise will be. The New York Times pooh-poohs the measure in an editorial that dismisses the furor over earmarks as a ruse because the amount spent on all earmarks accounts for only a fraction of federal spending. In the blogosphere, at TPM, Josh Marshall dismisses the issue as “basically a crock,” because it won’t have “any real effect on the national fisc [sic].”
Both are right, in the sense that it is true that the abolition of earmarks won’t balance the budget, although it is a good start. But the Times editorialists and the lefty bloggers are as clueless about the importance of this issue as they were about the rise of the Tea Party insurgency itself. The point about earmarks is not the amount of money spent on them. It is the way they are used by members of the House and Senate, who spend much of their time in their districts and states swooping down on local institutions accompanied by aides carrying huge cardboard checks for photo ops to remind voters just who it was who paid for the new parking lot at the community center or the local hospital’s new equipment.
While defenders of the practice claim that these measures give Congress control over spending that would otherwise merely revert to the executive, what earmarks really do is they allow individual senators and congressmen to use the federal purse as a patronage machine. Though a fraction of the federal budget, earmarks are important symbols of the way the system has been crafted to shift power away from the taxpayers and into the hands of the political class. Not every earmark is a boondoggle. Many bring help to their constituents. But this is not free money from Washington. Earmarks return only a fraction of our tax dollars to us, an amount doled out with an eyedropper. Even more to the point, they serve the senders more than the recipients. Earmarks may be sold as constituent service, but they are the instruments of raw political power that make every incumbent a formidable campaign-fundraising machine. Earmarks turn everyone into members of the special-interest groups that compete for the favors of politicians who hand back a small percentage of the money government took from us in the first place. These politicians then expect votes and campaign contributions in return. Despite the furor over the abuses of lobbyists in Washington, earmarks are the true mark of Congressional corruption; they are the currency with which politicians of both parties are allowed to legally buy votes and to purchase them at cut-rate prices.
Obama’s billion-dollar “stimulus” didn’t fix the economy, but it did focus public attention on the way this budget buster was used by Congress to play the earmark game. The blow-back from that and the rest of the administration’s hyper-liberal plans to increase the power of the federal government gave new impetus to taxpayer anger. Ending earmarks won’t balance the budget or put a dent in the deficit. But that was never the point. Rather, it was the attempt to put a check on the ability of politicians to buy support with money they siphoned from the federal budget. Doing so will not fix the system by itself. But it is a start.