Earmarks and the Constitution

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Is Senate Minority Leader McConnell’s announcement yesterday that he will support a moratorium on earmarks a sign that establishment Republicans are caving in to the tea party faction of their party?

My response:

Far from a sign that ”establishment” Republicans are “caving in” to the Tea Party faction soon to arrive here, Senate Minority Leader McConnell’s announcement yesterday that he “will join the Republican Leadership in the House in support of a moratorium on earmarks in the 112th Congress” suggests that Republicans may be rediscovering their roots in limited government, however reluctantly for some. At the same time, McConnell’s unusually long press release brings out two main difficulties surrounding the subject: first, and most important, the overall growth of spending; and second, the question of who decides where that spending goes.

On the second question, McConnell is clearly right: It’s hardly an improvement if ending earmarks amounts simply to giving the president the discretion to determine where spending goes. And on that point he contrasts earmarks he himself has made toward projects that properly were federal – e.g., cleaning up a dangerous chemical weapons site in his state, which presidents in both parties had ignored – with the Stimulus Bill, “which Congress passed without any earmarks only to have the current administration load it up with earmarks for everything from turtle tunnels to tennis courts.”

To be sure, there’s enough mischief at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to go around, but it’s the growth of spending, most on matters unauthorized by the Constitution, that is far and away the larger problem. McConnell calls for congressional oversight “to monitor how the money taxpayers send to the administration is actually spent.” Far more important will be hearings to determine whether Congress has constitutional authority to appropriate money on any particular matter in the first place.

Thus, the new Congress needs to see through the false alternative the earmarks debate has engendered. At bottom, it’s not a question of whether Congress or the president shall decide. Rather, after administration input, all but ministerial spending decisions belong to Congress – as constrained by the Constitution. Thus, if the voice of the electorate is to be respected, new and old members alike need to attend first to their oath of office.