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By Jay Cost

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A Response to Steny Hoyer on Earmarking

USA Today ran an editorial this morning advocating earmark reform and decrying the large number of earmarks in the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill the President intends to sign (without ceremony). As customary, the newspaper invited somebody with an opposing view to defend the process.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer answered the call, and proceeded to offer a series of non-sequiturs in defense of earmarking. I counted four distinct points in his response:

(1) It's critical to maintain the balance of power between the branches.
(2) Earmarking makes up a small share of the budget - the issue is largely symbolic and distracts the country from bigger problems.
(3) Republicans earmarked, too.
(4) Democrats have cut down on the number of earmarks, and have reformed aspects of the process.

I'd suggest that (1) and (3) are entirely irrelevant as a defense of the earmarking process. If anything, earmarks interfere with the executive branch as much as eliminating them would interfere with the legislative branch. The Office of Management and Budget defines earmarks as:

[F]unds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents Executive Branch merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to manage critical aspects of the funds allocation process.
So, the practice of earmarking is one where Congress plays the role not only of appropriator, but executor. As for (3), you betcha Republicans earmarked. And look where they landed: the 110th Congress sports the tiniest GOP caucus in 16 years.

Meanwhile, (2) and (4) actually conflict with each other. If this is a meaningless issue, then why have Democrats gone to such efforts to trim back earmarks?

It's easy to be critical of Mr. Hoyer here - for he is tasked with trying to defend what is essentially an indefensible process, at least from a national perspective. Earmarking is a perfect example of congressional particularism, which I discussed yesterday. Quite often, it is Congress spending money not for the sake of the public good, but for the good of particular constituents in the 435 districts or 50 states. If your perspective on public affairs is national - that is, you think that federal money should be spent according to national priorities - then the process is indefensible, as it allocates dollars not where they are most needed, but on the basis of the congressional log roll. You can only defend it on a local level. For instance, you can defend earmarks if your top concern is the good folks of Walla Walla, Washington and you want to make sure they get as much as possible (in a way with sufficient visibility that you can claim credit for district improvements and thereby enhance your reelection prospects!).

That, of course, is exactly the perspective of individual members of Congress. They are elected by local constituencies and tasked with advancing their interests in the legislature. As there is nobody elected to Congress by the country as a whole - the appropriate way to look at Congress is not as a national body, but as the meeting place of representatives from all the locales. It's a subtle distinction, but it's a crucial one - as it accounts for practices like earmarks.

Actually, I do agree with Hoyer on one point - earmarks are largely symbolic. However, I'd suggest that they symbolize something extremely important - congressional irresponsibility, which is broad-based and a genuine problem in our constitutional system. I'd define congressional irresponsibility as anything Congress does that favors a legislator's particular client group at the expense of the national interest. That doesn't just include earmarks. It can also include, for instance, Congress' habit of overfunding executive agencies beyond what the President requests. It includes the inefficiencies in the tax code, which legislators have created in part to help favored constituent groups. It includes the interest on the federal debt - which can be seen as the price we pay for past Congresses that refused to make tough choices like spending cuts or tax increases. It includes long festering issues - like entitlement reform - that Congress refuses to tackle because of the short-term electoral risk involved.

Yes, earmarks are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. They receive the focus they do not because they are of critical import - but because of all the irresponsible things Congress does every session, earmarking is probably the most ridiculous. It's congressional irresponsibility "jumping the shark," which means crusaders can use it to grab the public's attention. But the public knows something bigger is wrong with the Congress. After all, just one in three Americans approve of the job it's doing, and that is a dramatic improvement in its public standing.

-Jay Cost