An earmark fight Congress doesn't need

By Jeff Flake
Friday, November 12, 2010

Last week Sen. Mitch McConnell played down the chances of an earmark moratorium in the Senate next year by saying, "I'm sure the president would love to have a legislative blank check."

You've heard appropriators make that argument before: If Congress gives up earmarks, it will be surrendering its power of the purse to the executive branch, ceding its authority under Article I of the Constitution by permitting the administration to decide the country's funding priorities.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, much of the erosion of Congress's authority relative to the executive branch over the past two decades can be traced to its obsession with earmarks.

Congress has always had, and will retain, the ability to direct the administration to spend money on specific items, such as missile defense. It does so by authorizing specific programs and providing funding that can be used only for those programs. What I am talking about, and what its practitioners are seeking to defend, is the contemporary practice of earmarking, which typically involves individual members of Congress identifying specific projects for which they obtain exclusive funding.

Those who view earmarking as an expression of the "congressional prerogative" sell Congress short of its preeminent role as the first branch of government. As the defenders of earmarking are fond of saying, earmarks represent less than 2 percent of all federal spending. Precisely! By focusing on a measly 2 percent of spending, we have given up effective oversight on the remaining 98 percent.

This lopsided exchange can be examined empirically. As the number of earmarks has risen significantly over the past two decades, the amount of oversight exercised by the House Appropriations Committee - as measured by the number of hearings held, witnesses called, etc. - has declined substantially. It is as if Congress has called a truce with the executive branch: Don't hassle us about our 2 percent, and we'll offer only token interference with your 98 percent. Such a poor trade has not been made since the days of Esau.

Earmarks are often justified because members of Congress "know their districts better than faceless bureaucrats do." I'm not out to defend bureaucrats (they're hard to identify, being faceless and all), but if we don't like the way federal bureaucrats are allocating money, the answer is to stop giving them the money to allocate, or to narrow or broaden their choices through the authorization process. The answer is not to run parallel spending programs in Congress. And given the disproportionate manner in which Congress spends money on earmarks, it seems that party leaders, committee chairs and appropriators know their districts a lot better than those rank-and-file members.

The public revulsion related to earmarks is largely a product of the perceived waste (teapot museums) and the potential for corruption (earmarks exchanged for campaign contributions). These are reason enough for a full earmark moratorium to be extended to both parties in the House, as well as in the Senate, as is the incongruity of cutting popular programs while doling out money for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But the most compelling reason to scuttle earmarks is simply that doing so will help balance the relationship between Congress and the executive branch. Without the earmark distraction, Congress can return to the deliberative process of authorization, appropriation and oversight, thus reining in spending abuses of the administration rather than simply piling on with spending abuses of our own.

The writer, a Republican, represents Arizona's 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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