Nov 292010
Authors: Steven Zoeller

There’s an old adage of government spending, often attributed to the late Sen. Everett Dirkson: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

The remark still echoes in the halls of Congress, mostly ignored by politicians who would rather waste time trying to ban earmarking, a useful practice which accounts for only one percent of the annual federal budget.

Republicans and Democrats alike hail it as a step toward government accountability and a shrinking deficit.

Whether this is lame duck grandstanding or they seriously believe their own claims, it only takes a quick review of facts to realize it’s a step in the wrong direction.

The very nature of earmarks is distributive. By definition, they are appropriations of funds in a spending bill to benefit local projects.

This means attaching fewer earmarks doesn’t make the original bill any lighter, it only sends the funds in fewer directions.

Recall, as mentioned earlier, that earmarks account for only one percent of the annual federal budget, or $16 billion — not “real” money by any means and a trifle compared to that wasted in health care spending.

Combine this fact with your knowledge of earmarks, and you’ll be strained to make a strong logical link between banning them and shrinking the deficit.

Sen. Mitch McConnell –– who until recently championed earmarks to vastly improve the capitol of his state of Kentucky –– claims that “the abuse of (earmarking) has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight.”

We can agree with everything but his solution. Yes, earmarks are a symbol, but that’s it. In a way, he admits a ban would be merely symbolic.

And indeed, there have been cases of abuse; the one that immediately comes to mind is the infamous “bridge to nowhere,” an Alaskan bridge connecting the mainland to an island with a population of about fifty.

But for every useless bridge and beer museum –– whether you’ll regard that Wisconsin expense as worthwhile or not is a matter of taste –– there’s a charity or medical institute that receives funding it wouldn’t usually get without earmarks.

If the problem is money going to undeserving projects, then why not stop funding those instead?

Which brings the focus on the politicians who’ve been fighting earmarks all along, most famously Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Together, they are pushing for a Senate vote on an earmark moratorium. McCain and Coburn maintain that earmarks are corrupting and shady, but in more cases they actually serve as tools of compromise.

They’re also fairly transparent, with a modern application process and records kept on representative’s and senator’s websites.

If politicians have problems with the process, why not reform it rather than pass a temporary ban? It’s counterproductive and keeps funding from worthwhile recipients on the local level.

Interestingly, other conservative senators, such as Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., want to keep earmarks, for some of the reasons listed above.

Inhofe should hold to that position, as should any other fiscal conservatives who’ve come to recognize this as an illusion of progress.

Sen. Coburn once said, “We’ve got to start doing the things most important first and least important last.”

If the new Republicans in Congress truly want to start an era of fiscal responsibility and deficit management, a ban on earmarks belongs near the bottom of the list, if it belongs on the list at all. They need to start looking at “real money.”

Steven Zoeller is a UWIRE columnist who writes for The Oklahoma Daily. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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