Osama Bin Earmarks?

The Congress of the United States of America, both Democrats and Republicans, have taken up a holy quest of sorts this week; the mission to be the heroes who vanquish that eternal enemy, the earmark! This week the Democrats in the House proposed outlawing “for profit earmarks”, measures where a lawmaker inserts an appropriation into a bill that specifically benefits a for profit firm. Not to be outdone, the Republicans in the House passed a resolution in their caucus swearing off all earmarks for this year.

Wow! We are really getting somewhere now, aren’t we? Well, not really. The 2008 budget proposed by President Bush and passed by the Congress totalled $2.9 trillion. Included in that measure was a grand total of $18 billion in earmarks, or just a little more than the budget of NASA. In fact, earmarks rarely total more than 1.5% of all federal spending. Attacking earmarks in the government is the same as a homeowner who can’t pay their mortgage stressing out over whether they should cancel their newspaper subscription.

So what are earmarks? Why isn’t unilaterally killing 1.5% of federal spending a good thing? Here are 10 random examples of earmarks;

  1. $380,000 for a railroad overpass in Wichita
  2. $8.6 million for the 262 Info Warfare Aggressor Squadron in Washington
  3. $2.2 million for 49th Missile Defense Battalion Infrastructure and Security Upgrades
  4. $475,000 for the four-laning of Airport Road in Gadsden, Alabama
  5. $950,000 for the 55th Street East Grade Separation in Minot, North Dakota
  6. $100,000 to A Child Is Missing to help efforts in South Dakota
  7. $476,000 for Acelero Learning for early education programs in Las Vegas, Nevada
  8. $2.8 million for Acid Alkaline Direct Methanol Fuel Cell Technology in North Carolina
  9. $1,000,000 to the Adjutant General’s office for Emergency Preparedness in South Carolina
  10. $12.5 million for the medical parking garage at Fort Bliss, Texas (phase one)

Every year, there are 15,000 or more of these requests covering everything from drug rehabilitation efforts, to community redevelopment, to anti-terrorism efforts. Reading the full list of earmarks is a great deal like reading the defense budget, as a majority of the so-called pork comes from defense related measures. Yes, some of the measures are wasteful, but I would propose taking a deeper look. These are individual requests from representatives on behalf of their constituents.

When the real Tea Partiers went to work in Boston Harbor over 200 years ago, they did so to protest taxation without representation. The colonies were taxed by the Crown without having members in the British parliament, and without receiving money back in the form of Crown services. Our Representatives and Senators vote on taxation and have the power to influence spending as a whole, and to return taxpayer monies to their districts through specific requests.

This system is far from perfect, and much could be done to make it both more efficient and more fair. My point in this post is that isolated attacks on individual parts of the system are too narrow to be effective. These efforts are more likely to “throw the baby out with the bath water” than to effect any real improvement. Earmarks are often the best use of taxpayer money; they are easy to track and are spent by accessible and local organizations outside of the federal bureaucracy. Every year during the budget battle, smaller agencies that tend to do more effective work in our communities (i.e. Veteran’s Affairs, Corps of Engineers, etc.) tend to see their budgets slashed for the sake of fiscal responsibility. These cuts make little difference to the deficit and generally rob constituents of important services.

Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP, the Department of Defense, and the interest on the national debt consume 80% of our current budget. We would need to cut almost 60% of our budget to return to the balanced budget of the Clinton years without increasing taxes. With Medicare, Social Security, and the DOD accounting for almost half of the budget, dealing with the causes of inflation in those programs must be a priority. My biggest argument with Conservatives and the Republican Party is their insistence in proclaiming that we need to trim the deficit and cut taxes, at the same time. While I hope that these numbers will show how impossible that notion truly is, I know that the Party’s insistence is based on the feelings of many good Americans.

It is time, however, to grow up. Some things will have to be cut, that much is certain, but bills have to paid and capital investments in this dream we call America must continue. Twenty years ago, George Bush’s father gave up a realistic chance at a second term when he pushed for a tax increase; that kind of courage should be rewarded. Nobody like taxes but the enterprise that stops investing dies.

The Rational Middle knows that this might stir things up….