Tuesday, March 17, 2009

the other/larger problem with earmarks

When it comes to earmarks, people generally air two complaints:

1.) The earmarks are, themselves, bothersome-- ethically and/or practically.

2.) Earmarks lead to more earmarks.

Here's a third:

3.) Earmarks often fall under what's called "log-rolling"-- you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. In other words, earmarks are inserted into otherwise unpassable bills to "purchase" the support of marginal representatives and get a bill passed.

Here's William McGurn in the WSJ focusing on the third...

The worse the omnibus spending bill now before Congress gets, the more likely that Congress will pass it -- and that Barack Obama will sign it into law.

The reasons confuse most Americans. But the iron logic is well understood by every Beltway politician. We were given a glimpse of it Sunday on CNN, when Peter R. Orszag, President Obama's budget director, called the $410 billion omnibus "uglier than we would like" -- and in the next breath urged Congress to go ahead and pass it anyway.

What explains this disconnect? The answer is that politicians and citizens understand earmarks in different ways. Politicians understand that not all earmarks are pork, and not all pork comes in the form of an earmark. They also appreciate the ease of inserting pet projects into large spending bills without any debate or scrutiny.

The public understands that this way of handling taxpayer dollars is corrupting even when it doesn't lead to a federal indictment....

What the public does not understand is that the more earmarks there are in a bill, the harder it will be to vote against it. The reason is simple: With every earmark, a congressman or senator gains a personal stake in the passage of a bill he or she might otherwise oppose.

Which brings us to the real scandal here -- that 8,500-plus earmarks adding up to $8 billion will end up sticking the American taxpayer with a $410 billion spending bill that is filled with large and significant provisions that have gone largely undebated....

For a president, the tradeoffs are tougher. When I was in the West Wing, we regularly attacked earmarks. But it was difficult to get specific without sending a member into a fit of pique....

So much as you might love to highlight the speaker's road to nowhere or someone else's six-figure earmark for the Lobster Institute, you have to ask yourself: Is it worth the vote it might cost you later on other, more important items on your agenda -- e.g., a judicial appointment, a vital trade agreement, or a war-funding bill?

Right now, some are calling for Mr. Obama to veto the omnibus. It's true that if he did, he would be showing welcome courage in Washington -- not least because saying "No" would mean exposing leaders in his own party to public embarrassment. That may be why instead of talking up a veto, the White House has opted to spin this year's spending as "last year's business" -- and urge Congress to just get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible....


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