Maya MacGuineas: What’s Missing in the Earmark Debate

Maya MacGuineas, President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, wrote a commentary that appeared in the Wall Street Journal Washington Wire. It is reposted here.

Some in Washington have pushed to resume earmarking, the practice of setting aside government resources for projects in specific lawmakers’ districts. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid has declared earmarking an American tradition, and others have argued that the demise of earmarks has led to more gridlock because there are no longer pet projects to help grease the wheels of legislative dealmaking.

But a Wall Street Journal editorial had it right this week in arguing that the ban should not be repealed. The lack of earmarks is encouraging the appropriations subcommittees to do their jobs, the editorial noted, and spend more time allocating resources based on merit.

Another argument against earmarks is related to the fixing the budget.

Earmarks have led to many instances of government resources being squandered on projects as laughable as providing safe salamander crossings and promoting poetry in zoos. Such appropriations don’t lead to more overall government spending because they must fit within existing spending limits, but they facilitate pet projects that can rarely be justified as national priorities.

The damage runs deeper than inefficiently allocated dollars: Ultimately, citizens’ confidence is undermined that the government can be trusted to spend their money wisely.

But there’s also the issue that significant spending reforms need to be made to the federal budget, which is facing massive long-term deficits–and taxpayers are more likely to resist them when they can point to “bridges to nowhere” as things that should be cut first. Such earmarks have been a convenient excuse for lawmakers, who for years used the need to reform earmarks as a foil to avoid making more substantive reforms to overall spending. Bringing back earmarks surely would not instill confidence.

The symbolism here is important, and Washington sending the message that it intends to go back to the old way of doing business is not a step toward restoring faith in government.

"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee.