Congressional earmarks have received a lot of media attention lately, despite the fact that they make up only a small percentage of the overall budget.
Even advocates of limited government sometimes bemoan the disproportionate focus on earmarks and the relative lack of attention paid to larger spending items, like entitlement programs.
But the full story on earmarks isn’t simply their direct impact on the budget. Earmarks are also used by Congressional leadership to raise the public profile of incumbents in tough reelection fights, entice members to vote for controversial bills, and enforce party discipline.
The latter was on display yesterday when, as The Hill notes, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey (D-WI), “canceled meetings with a New Orleans delegation because a Louisiana lawmaker had defied party leadership on a procedural vote the night before.”
In canceling the meeting, Obey was “punishing” Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) by refusing to allow his constituents to make a pitch for their earmark wish list to the House’s chief appropriator. More broadly, Obey sent a clear message to other lawmakers: recalcitrance will jeopardize your earmarks.
Using taxpayer funds to enforce party discipline is a blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars. Further, this practice undercuts a chief argument of earmark defenders who claim that the process is an essential means to fast-track funds to critical local projects, like roads and infrastructure. Unless, of course, truly critical projects exist only in the districts of loyal partisans.
In other earmark news, yesterday the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a one-year moratorium on earmarks. Hardly a surprise.