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Gail Collins vs. Numbers on Earmarks

By Brendan Nyhan

In her column on Saturday, Gail Collins of the New York Times makes the important point that earmarks aren't a pressing national priority:

McCain hates, hates, hates earmarking -- the Congressional habit of sticking appropriations for special back-home projects in the budget without going through the normal priority-setting process. He talks about it with an enthusiasm that he never manages to summon for the economy, health care or education.

Earmarks are indeed a bad thing. If you ever become a U.S. senator, please dedicate yourself to getting rid of them. But for the chief executive of the country, they're about as critical a problem as the overlong Christmas shopping season.

The problem is that Collins never actually proves her point. Without the relevant data, the statement above is just an assertion. Here's what's missing: the reason earmarks aren't a critical problem is that they are a tiny percentage of total federal spending.

For instance, estimates from watchdog groups of total earmark spending in fiscal 2008 range from $16-18 billion. Current estimated outlays for the federal government in fiscal 2008 are $2.9 trillion (PDF). That's less than one percent.

To put it another way, the current projected deficit is roughly $400 billion. Even if John McCain got rid of every earmark (an impossible task), it would only make a small contribution to deficit reduction. (See's takedown of McCain's exaggerated claims of how much it can save by reducing earmarks.)

If only Gail Collins could tell her readers these things...

Brendan blogs at