Lend Me Your Ears, And I’ll Sing You A Song

Andrew Taylor at Real Clear Politics:

In an election-year appeal to voters frustrated with Washington, House Republicans promised Thursday not to stuff any of this year’s spending bills with pet projects for their districts.

The promise comes a day after House Democrats banned earmarks to for-profit companies, ending a practice that in many cases created a cozy “pay-to-play” culture involving lawmakers and businesses whose Washington lobbyists often use campaign donations to help assure access.

Earmarks send taxpayer dollars to projects in lawmakers’ districts outside the competitive process required for other federal spending.

The House members’ actions follow a House Ethics Committee investigation of seven lawmakers for taking campaign donations from those who benefited from earmarks. The seven were absolved of wrongdoing, but the two parties are seeking political high ground with voters unhappy with Washington and out-of-control spending.

The effort may run into trouble in the Senate, where many lawmakers have made clear they have no interest in House Republicans’ self-imposed moratorium or House Democrats’ ban on earmarks to for-profit companies. That could set up contentious negotiations later this year, when the House and Senate must combine their versions of spending bills.

Instapundit:

Fewer earmarks are better earmarks.

Moe Lane at Redstate:

Rep. Pence calls it a ‘clean break,’ which it is: I forget who out there has noted that this has been at least partially brought about by it being an election year. Which is fine by me; fear of the consequences of ticking off the voters is a perfectly good motivational tool for keeping legislators in line, as the upcoming Congressional elections are going to demonstrate. There’s going to be a goodly number of Democratic object lessons Congressmen who are going to wish that they had trusted their instincts in that regard, in fact.

Brian Riedl at Heritage:

This is a strong positive development. Earmarks distribute government grants by politics rather than by merit. Instead of submitting a strong application to a federal agency, grant-seekers are often forced to hire lobbyists and make campaign donations. This corrupting process has resulted in multiple federal investigations, one of which concluded with a Member of Congress going to prison.

Reducing earmarks will not directly reduce the amount of money available for grantees. Instead, it will empower federal agencies to select grantees through a merit-based application process. For other programs, it means more funding will instead be distributed to state and local governments, who can better decide where to repair a road or how to revitalize a neighborhood than politicians in Washington D.C.

However, more work must be done. House Democrats still must agree on their earmark plan. Their plan should also be expanded to include non-profit organizations (who would also benefit from a system that distributes grants by merit rather than politics) as well as state and local governments (who should be able to receive their federal funds without the micromanagement of earmark instructions). The Senate should follow suit with a moratorium as well.

In addition, President Obama should sign an Executive Order banning all “phone-marks.” Phone-marking occurs when a lawmakers tries to circumvent an earmark ban by directly calling federal agencies and demanding that certain favored groups receive federal grants. Because they leave no paper trail, phone-marks are even less accountable than earmarks.

John Cole:

It makes no sense giving no-bid contracts via earmarks, so this is a welcome attempt at change, but I still find all the attention given to the relatively small amount of money spent on earmarks to be amusing. Hell, the Army spends more on diesel fuel and JP8 every year than congress spends on earmarks, and in a lot of cases, earmarks are completely legit.

Jim Antle at The American Spectator:

For a long time, I’ve viewed the campaign against earmarks as misguided. They represent about 1 percent of federal spending, making them a minuscule part of government growth. Eliminating them all wouldn’t even directly reduce any spending, it would merely affect how the spending is disbursed. It’s not clear that government spending controlled by unaccountable bureaucrats would be less wasteful. Attacking the log-rolling that is central to the legislative process seemed like barking at the moon.

A better approach to the earmarks issue, I’ve always argued, is to use them to demonstrate the absurdity of much of what government does and defeat much larger spending bills. My favorite example is the Clinton-era crime bill. Many conservatives argued against that piece of legislation, which contained billions of dollars in new social spending, on the basis of midnight basketball. Use midnight basketball to defeat the crime bill. Don’t take midnight basketball out of the bill and declare victory.

Having said all that, I think the time has come for the Republicans to adopt a moratorium on earmarks. It is simply a threshold issue for fiscal credibility. How many times have we heard that Republicans are taking a bold stand on this or that spending bill only to learn that they requested better than 40 percent of the earmarks? If Republicans have their names next to too many pork barrel projects, they will never be trusted to rein in more serious spending programs like entitlements.

Ezra Klein:

And Republicans haven’t sworn off earmarks. They’ve sworn them off for a year in which they are out of power and thus are not able to pass many of them. It’s good politics, but neither here nor there so far as the deficit is concerned.

Michelle Oddis at Human Events:

Heads turn now to the Senate where several Republicans have proposed a similar moratorium, but Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) says that he is against a ban on earmarks challenging many of his fellow conservative colleagues.

If you kill an earmark… it doesn’t save one cent, not a cent, it is merely ceded to the Executive Branch,” says Inhofe.

Inhofe then used an example from the Bush administration explaining that President Bush only passed two out of 12 appropriation bills in 2007. “All they did [with the failed bills] was take the amount of money that would have been appropriated and put it into grants, and used the present budget and, of course, unelected bureaucrats were the ones making the distributions.”

Andrew Samwick:

I am all for eliminating earmarks to for-profit companies and for extending it to non-profits as well.  All discretionary money should be awarded on an open, competitive basis, with oversight of the executive branch agencies by appropriate Congressional committees.  Earmarks have no place in federal spending, as a matter of principle.

Stan Collender:

But there are three reasons why no one should get too excited about the recent developments:

1.  As Andrew notes and I’ve remarked on previously, eliminating earmarks doesn’t actually reduce spending; all it does is change who makes the decision from Congress to an executive branch agency.  Unless the appropriation is reduced at the same time the earmark is eliminated, which no one is suggesting, the amount that will be spent will remain the same.

2.  Also as Andrew points out, even if all earmarks were eliminated and appropriations were cut by a corresponding amount, the amount that spending would be reduced would be relatively small and certainly not enough to make an appreciable difference in the deficit outlook.  It’s not that $20 billion or so isn’t a great deal of money.  It’s just that $20 billion a year less in discretionary spending is barely a rounding error compared to the magnitude of what will need to be done when deficit reduction is the correct fiscal policy.

3.  The earmark limits are only being proposed in the House.  So far there has been no corresponding effort in the Senate…and none is expected.  That almost certainly means that there will be earmarks in fiscal 2011 but they’ll emanate from the north rather than the south side of Capital Hill.

Bruce Bartlett:

It’s obviously true that earmarks are not a significant cause of rising federal spending; eliminating all of them will save at most one percent of the budget. I’ve always suspected that this is the main reason why right wingers focus on them so obsessively–it makes them look tough on spending while actually doing nothing meaningful to cut it.

That said, I think earmarks are underrated in terms of their contribution to corruption. It’s really poisonous when members of Congress can so easily direct federal spending to a favored business in order to attract campaign contributions or just the mistaken belief that they are doing something for their district by helping out a local company.

Furthermore, I think the idea that if Congress stops earmarking that they will somehow disappear is ludicrous. It will just increase congressional pressure on the administration to include favored projects in the president’s budget, which for some reason is always treated as being earmark-free.

Kevin Drum:

Everyone assumes that they raise spending, but they don’t. They just redirect it. I don’t understand why earmark opponents endlessly get away with pretending otherwise.

In fairness, if earmarks were eliminated and the related budget authority were eliminated too, it would cut spending a bit. But that’s not what anyone is proposing. Until they do, the posturing is even worse than Bruce suggests.

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