Dueling Earmark Op-Eds

With a key vote on earmarks slated for next Tuesday in the Senate Republican Conference, Republican leaders are having it out on whether their party should eschew earmarking or continue the practice. The debate centers on the division of power between Congress and the executive branch.

On NRO’s “The Corner” blog, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) calls earmarks a “phony issue.” Doing away with earmarks doesn’t reduce spending. It simply transfers authority for spending decisions to the executive:

Earmarks have been part of the congressional process since the founding of our country. As James Madison, the father of the Constitution viewed it, appropriating funds is the job of the legislature. Writing in the Federalist, he noted that Congress holds the power of the purse for the very reason that it is closer to the people. The words of Madison and Article 1 Section 9 of the Constitution say that authorization and appropriations are exclusively the responsibility of the legislative branch. Congress should not cede this authority to the executive branch.

And he criticizes the anti-earmark movement as “pseudo” fiscal responsibility:

While anti-earmarkers bloviate about the billions spent through earmarks, many of them supported the trillions of dollars in extra spending for bailouts, stimulus, and foreign aid. Talk about specks versus planks! Over the course of the last several years, the overall number and dollar amount of earmarks has steadily decreased. During that same time, overall spending has ballooned by over $1.3 trillion. In reality, ballyhooing about earmarks has been used as a ruse by some to seem more fiscally responsible than they really are.

Taking the other side, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) writes in the Washington Post that earmarks are part and parcel of Congress’s abdication:

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.

Senator Inhofe misuses Federalist #58. The “power of the purse” refers to the fact that revenue measures must originate in the popularly elected House, strengthening its hand against the Senate, whose membership was to be selected by state legislatures. But he is right to castigate the earmark opponents who have thrown buckets of taxpayer money into the wind when Washington, D.C., has lately spun itself into a whirl.

Inhofe’s static view of earmarking produces the weaker of the two arguments, though. Rep. Flake is right to recognize earmarking’s dynamic effects. The fiscal weaklings—majorities in both parties—decline oversight and go along with spending bills they might otherwise oppose because of goodies for their home states or districts.

Earmarker comity may even cause fiscal conservatives to go wobbly. Try counting the number of amendments Senator Inhofe has offered seeking to strike earmarks in 23 years of debating spending bills on the Senate floor, and you may not need to raise a finger on either of your hands.

The right answer is to take what both of these debaters has to offer. Earmarks should go, and Congress should withdraw spending discretion from the executive branch while it reduces spending overall.

I’ll be speaking Monday at a Hill event on earmark transparency. Should be a barn burner!