Earmark bans are not good

I wrote this in response to someone who celebrated the recent Republican earmark ban proposal:

Can I offer the contrarian opinion? ;-)

Certainly bad earmarks should be stopped. Bad earmarks increase spending, are pork, or are stupid. Examples range from Alaska’s bridge to nowhere to a recent $98,440 appropriation to Granbury Historic Opera House Theater by Chet Edwards. (Why does that Democrat represent the heart of Texas???)

But there are good earmarks. “Carve out” earmarks tell agencies how to spend already-allocated funds. They give Congress a check against the same unaccountable Washington bureaucrats Rick Perry is running against. With no earmarks, a 2011-2013 Republican Congress (!!!!!?) would be hamstrung in fighting Obama administration retaliation–where Obama’s minions would likely starve the reddest districts of their fair share of federal funds.

I prefer more nuance, which is why I oppose the 2008 RPT platform’s Earmarks plank (see http://betterplatform.org/plank/earmarks). The earmark debate is among several examples of the 2008 RPT platform’s ineffectiveness. In this case, the platform micromanages details, distracting from the root problem: runaway spending. Additionally, this is among several places where the platform ignores the capitalistic concept of return on investment (ROI), wasting scarce political capital on changes that have little benefit or may make things worse.

Total earmark bans have a bad ROI. In addition to throwing out the baby with the bathwater–i.e., throwing out the good earmarks with the bad ones–they are impermanent: House rule changes just take a simple majority to overturn. So mark my words, any bans will melt within 12 months at most, and in the meantime there will be many ways to get around it.

We must focus on the real problem: out of control spending. Earmark abuse is just a symptom of the problem. If we could get the federal government in austerity (reducing spending and paying more debt), that would eliminate funds for the bad earmarks.

Something that distinguishes conservatives is willingness to roll up our sleeves and attack root problems. Liberals just attack the symptoms. The health care debate is a good example: liberals want to ram through a “quick fix”, statist approach, but conservatives advocate more permanent, longer-term, market-based solutions that are healthier but won’t have the “quick fix” immediacy.

This dichotomy is easy to understand–attacking the root problem is tough. It doesn’t produce quick results. But it has intellectual integrity, and it will produce a better solution. On the other hand, attacking the symptoms–the liberal method–assures continued political relevance because the symptoms will keep manifesting over and over and over.

So to summarize: With you, I celebrate attention to abuses. But I am concerned that this measure is political candy that goes too far and doesn’t meaningfully advance the conservative agenda. I want Republicans instead to focus on runaway spending. With meaningful fiscal reform and austerity, earmarks will take care of themselves.

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