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Why the much-maligned earmark is good for America

By Mark Greenberg
Sunday, November 21, 2010; B04

In the recent midterm elections, voters endorsed the view of tea partiers and small-government enthusiasts that congressional earmarks have become a threat to the republic. Leaders in Washington quickly responded.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has long backed the practice of designating federal dollars for projects back home, came out in support of an earmark ban last week. "There is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Congress is determined to fight," he said.

Because McConnell is a thoughtful legislator, he identified the abuse of earmarks - not earmarks themselves - as a source of public discontent. If the fiscal and political impact of earmarks is considered, their use is entirely defensible.

I should know. I'm a Washington lobbyist who has practiced for more than two decades. I've secured earmarks for a bioscience park in Aurora, Colo., regional transit in Denver and a job-training program in Richmond. Earmarks don't bankrupt our government. They make it run more smoothly.

First, earmarks are largely irrelevant to balancing the budget. The $16.5 billion Congress spent on earmarks in fiscal year 2009 sounds like a lot, but leaves a minuscule footprint - about 1 percent of 2009's $1.4 trillion deficit. Those seriously concerned about deficits should look elsewhere for meaningful spending reductions.

Second and more important, why would conservatives in Congress unilaterally offer to limit a constitutionally delegated authority for nothing in return? The founders' Constitution vested the power of the purse in the legislature to check presidential power. Constitutionalists of all persuasions should support the retention of earmarks.

Presidential budgets do not descend to Congress from Mount Sinai. Nor does the Office of Management and Budget - the White House arm responsible for producing the president's annual budget for Congress to review - make disinterested assessments of the nation's needs. This budget reaches Capitol Hill after months of policy debates, political infighting and pleading by federal agencies. So it would be accurate to regard the White House budget as a compendium of presidential earmarks. There are, after all, specific beneficiaries of the president's proposals.

Critics of earmarks wrongly assume that any outlay designated for a specific congressional district - and not included in the White House budget - lacks merit or legitimacy. Why? Projects funded by congressional earmarks can certainly provide services that no one in the White House considered.

In the early 1990s, for instance, I helped secure funding for an alternative school for minority students in Newport News called An Achievable Dream Academy. This school, which also operates a full-service health clinic, offers a meaningful option for children struggling in the mainstream educational system, but it wasn't included in the federal budget until Virginia Sens. John Warner and George Allen and Rep. Bobby Scott earmarked funding for it.

There's great irony here. Opponents of earmarks tend to support the proposition that all wisdom does not lie in Washington - but are outraged when representatives use earmarks to remedy the defect of Washington wisdom.

Beyond the merits of any specific program, Congress modifies the budget at will. And this process - like the presidential submission process - produces political winners. Even when earmarks help particular communities, anti-earmarkers are disingenuously selective, charging that the practice is somehow illegitimate because someone, somewhere derives a political benefit.

Third, politics does not end when the Treasury cuts a check. Consider transportation spending. Much federal surface transportation funding goes to planning organizations such as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which helps oversee Metro. These bodies are made up of local elected officials, city council members and county commissioners. Do these folks have political agendas and ambitions that find their way into their deliberations? You bet they do. Whether federally or locally, these decisions are never made apolitically. Why should Congress be singled out?

Finally, earmarks help create the majorities necessary for Congress to do its work. On Capitol Hill, party leaders must appeal to lawmakers' interests as well as their principles to get the votes they need. The leaders must be able to offer incentives - such as earmarks - to win votes on difficult issues. Earmarks are not the only possible incentives, nor do they need to be the most compelling ones. But they are a tool for taking care of members who might otherwise stray.

I have no idea what an enforceable ban on earmarks would mean for my business. Some of my clients seek earmarks. Others do not. But I am not writing out of concern for my practice. Rather, I fear the unintended institutional consequences of an earmark ban. If we curtail Congress's constitutional prerogative, reduce its power relative to the presidency and further fragment our politics, our political system will suffer.

Mark Greenberg, a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, is now a lobbyist with FBA.

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