The problem with earmarks is not just their cost, or even the revealing of the weak character of legislators and their lack of adherence to first principles that often devolves into a form of “legalized” corruption.
Sadly, these character flaws are often on full display. Every legislator knows that the actual financial cost of an earmark is just the tip of the iceberg. The true cost of this unsavory practice is not just the bridges to nowhere or the nonsensical studies of the sexual habits of turtles; it is the cost related to the legislative vote that was bought.
Reluctant or conniving legislators can often be “bribed” into supporting much larger and more damaging legislation with the gift of a seemingly immaterial earmark that will provide funding for a local project important to a big voting bloc or a large campaign contributor.
It is notable that so many legislators are comfortable with the notion that they and their votes can be bought. Rationales abound.
Supporters of earmarks begin by pointing out that the cost of earmarks, as compared to the national budget, is largely irrelevant. But no logic exists in this defense. Is it right for a thief to steal $100 from someone who has $1,000,000? If it is wrong, it is wrong.
Another rationale is that earmarks are legal. This is an equally illogical argument. If this backroom practice is unethical, does it make it right if it is constitutionally allowed? Do these supporters actually think that finding a loophole in the Constitution or in a specific regulation or law justifies their lack of ethics and transparency?
Supporters of earmark practices also like to point out that some earmarked projects actually contribute to society in very positive ways (i.e., special schools, needed hospitals, etc.). Does this fact, even if true, justify the lack of debate without public hearing, and the middle-of-the-night chicanery often associated with earmarks? If these claims are true, then why must they be accomplished out of sight?
The weakest of all the earmark rationales is the argument that this is the process that creates majorities on difficult issues, or this is the art of legislative compromise. Our founders did not intend for legislators to sell their votes or to abandon their principles for the sake of compromise, reelection, payback to campaign contributors, or any other reason. Neither do the American public.
To be fair, there has been some recent progress relating to the earmark process. Lawmakers must now post requested earmarks on their websites and certify they have no financial interest in those earmarks they present. They must also explain the purpose and value of each requested earmark.
What earmarks do not do (even with these new provisions) is recognize that our country has limited resources. Therefore, every spending project or initiative needs to be measured against all other proposed and existing spending. There is just not enough money to pay for everything that any legislator or citizen might support. Choices must be made based on agreed-upon priorities.