Friday, March 13, 2009

Congressional earmarks too much of a good thing?

Congressional earmarks have received much unfavorable attention lately, including some primarily rural ones in a '10 porkiest' list issued by Sen. John McCain. But the system has been reformed, become more transparent and "actually works better than much of what Washington does,” writes Jonathan Rauch in the National Journal.

"Getting an earmark now is a lot like applying for a grant," Rauch concludes, after explaining why that is so. "As transparency has taken over, the case against earmarks has melted away. Their budgetary impact is trivial in comparison with entitlements and other large programs. Obsessing about earmarks, indeed, has the perverse, if convenient, effect of distracting the country from its real spending problems, thus substituting indignation for discipline."

Rauch offers some useful history, paraphrasing former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.): "Appropriators felt little need to write earmarks into law. Instead, subcommittee chairmen and ranking [minority] members just dropped money into program accounts. Then they called up executive branch bureaucrats with advice on how to spend it." Apparently, other appropriators started using earmarks, then other members followed. "Earmarks were often invisible, at least until after they were enacted," Rauch writes, noting that has changed. "Every earmark request now must be made public before Congress votes on it. The sponsoring member, the amount and nature of the request, and the name and address of the beneficiary must all be disclosed. You can find all this stuff online."

Rauch asks, "Provided that transparency is assured, shouldn't there be a place in government for elected officials to exercise judgment in the use of taxpayer money? ... The problem is not so much with earmarking as with Congress's and the public's obsession with it. He quotes Scott Lilly, a a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress and a former House Appropriations Committee staff director: "It just takes too damn much time. Congress is spending an inordinate amount of time on 1 percent of the budget and giving the executive branch much too free a rein on the other 99 percent."(Read more)

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