Earmarked for success

James Valvo Director of Policy, Americans for Prosperity
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House Republicans have a chance to show they’re listening to the American people. The House Republican Conference recently announced they would not request earmarks in the looming feeding frenzy that is appropriations’ season. The special projects are a perennial public relations disaster for both parties, as transparency advocates uncover lawmaker-directed taxpayer funds for catfish genome research, tea pot museums and the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.

There are myriad excuses proffered by those who enjoy shuttling cash between Washington and a much-needed sewer project or popular bike trail expansion. However, the American people are tired of excuses and they simply want the profligate spending to stop. The party that embraces—and I mean really embraces—a rejection of politics as usual is poised to earn voters’ trust and make significant electoral gains. Let’s take a few of these earmarking excuses to task.

Perhaps the most popular excuse is that earmarks account for a miniscule portion of the federal budget, and that if fiscal conservatives want to make real cuts in federal spending they should look elsewhere. This logic is deeply flawed. Earmarks grease the wheels on the Washington big money train.

A perfect example is the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade debate last summer. Speaker Pelosi did not have the votes she needed to pass the $846 billion bill. During a frenzied evening on the House floor, Democratic leaders used earmarks to buy the last few votes. They gave Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) $50 million for a National Hurricane Research Center in Orlando; Rep. Nancy Kaptur (D-Ohio) got $3.5 billion for a federal power authority project in her home state; and Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.) got $1 billion in agriculture offsets for Maryland farmers. All three switched their votes at the last minute and helped drag the bill over the finish line. The three provisions were only half-of-one-percent of the total bill, but they held the keys to passage of the outrageous tax-and-spend bill.

Some lawmakers assert it is their constitutional obligation to earmark funds for their districts to make sure constituents get their fair share of federal funding. This may be, nevertheless, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Just because you can leverage your position of power to benefit your constituents at the expense of the rest of the country doesn’t mean you should. Voters are onto this distinction and are waiting for their representatives to catch up. Furthermore, where in the Constitution does it say lawmakers have the power to earmark $2 million for children’s wooden arrow manufacturers? Does that really provide for the general welfare?

Yet another justification is that if lawmakers don’t earmark, the funds will simply be wasted by agency bureaucrats. It’s true that an across-the-board earmark ban will likely not lower appropriations totals. But at least agencies have competitive grant processes to weed out parochial interests and political favoritism. Additionally, once we get our elected officials’ spending habits under control, agency budgets should be next on the agenda.

A more pragmatic excuse is that earmarking ensures reelection. It’s not uncommon for earmarks to flow into districts where a member of the majority is locked in a tough reelection campaign. This is a fairly successful strategy too. In fact, Americans for Prosperity Foundation just released a study by George Mason University Economics Professor Thomas Stratmann, which found that a 100-percent increase in a lawmaker’s earmarks equates to between 4.1 percent and 5.7 percent increase in vote share.

This year, Republicans have a chance to break that cycle. No one questions that the GOP is going to make major gains in November, and whether they take earmarks is unlikely to affect those gains. If the Republican leadership sustains the earmark moratorium and still picks up a significant number of seats in the midterm elections, it could be a serious blow to the fallacy that earmarks are required for reelection.

The political reality this cycle is that Democrats hold the all-important chairmanships and they will control which earmarks make it into appropriations bills. Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) has pledged to support the Republican moratorium and he should enforce his caucus’s ban by refusing to submit any stray GOP requests that trickle in. Lewis should make sure that, this year, any earmark is a Democratic earmark.

House Republicans took an important first step by acknowledging there’s a problem and promising a one-year earmark moratorium. This is their opportunity to show the American people there is a real difference between the parties and that Republicans take citizens’ spending concerns to heart. Announcing an earmark moratorium is one thing, sticking to it when the cash starts to fly is another; either way, November is coming.

Mr. Valvo is government affairs manager at Americans for Prosperity.