What’s the problem with earmarks?

Mattie Corrao Contributor
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The earmark discussion that has dominated the past few post-election days in Washington has cast speculation on what the ascendency of Republicans will to do to the age-old pork barrel process. The self-imposed House GOP Conference moratorium on earmarks that expired at the end of the fiscal year is due to be reinstated by the presumptive incoming speaker of the House, John Boehner, who has been brandishing his no-earmark record as a badge of honor.

The Senate, still under Democrat control, does not seem as eager to rid the Capitol of its time-honored earmark tradition. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has shown little appetite for a pork-free diet, insisting that eliminating the practice would cede too much appropriation power to the executive branch.

This “power of the purse” argument falls a bit flat when weighed against the reality of government spending. Congress, which refused to pass a budget this year and instead punted to the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (which, incidentally, decided it didn’t want to do any heavy lifting either), cannot claim it is only interested in governing when glistening pork is available to sweeten any deal.

What’s more, the implication that earmarks are somehow integral to lawmakers’ duties as appropriators offends the notion of limited government otherwise championed by GOP Senate leaders. It is also unlikely to be viewed kindly by the Tea Party, whose popular support of candidates this November garnered at least two new Republican seats in the Senate.

Leader McConnell also commented this weekend on the Sunday talk shows that the focus on earmarks was “exasperating,” claiming it distracted from “those of us who really want to cut spending.” McConnell pointed to the relatively negligible size of earmark spending, claiming their elimination would be unlikely to put a dent in the country’s ballooning black hole of federal overspending. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While earmarks do make up a comparatively small amount of outlays, they enable the spending behemoths that have caused the federal budget to explode, greasing the wheels for easy passage of bills that would otherwise lack support. Without the aid of earmarks, taxpayers could have been saved the nearly one-trillion-dollar spending and debt “stimulus” package, the billions entailed by the health care overhaul and the escalating price tag of overstuffed appropriations and authorizations.

Members of Congress who are serious about getting the country’s fiscal house in order must be as equally committed to reforming the process that enables constant profligacy. Without getting rid of the shiny enticement of pork, taxpayers are doomed to continue to shoulder the burden of wasteful spending packages that could never survive Congress on their own merits. Taxpayers expect better from their elected officials, and showed up Tuesday at the polls to let incumbents know that they’re unwilling to foot the bill for policies that can only pass after being stuffed to the gills with pork.

Members who are eyeing the cookie jar of federal payouts will continue to fill the jar with wasteful spending as long as they’re rewarded with the chocolate goody inside. Otherwise conservative congressmen vote for spending they would oppose if not for the temptation of earmarks — remove the pork and the incentive to sell-out on spending is gone. If new members want to take their mandate for smaller government and less spending seriously, they need to take the earmarks that sweeten government growth off the table entirely.

Mattie Corrao is the government affairs manager at Americans for Tax Reform.