Earmarks: How Some Miss the Point

Sometimes the people over at National Review just seem to completely miss the point. And then today they publish a commentary by Andrew C. McCarthy which takes aim at Speaker-elect John Boehner’s support for banning earmarks. Can you be any more tone deaf?

The debt is what the election was about: the growth-killing tab that runs up another $4 billion every day . . . Yet, Mr. Boehner is focused like a laser on . . . earmarks. They are, he says, “a symbol of a broken Washington.” Okay, but they are also less than one 1 percent of our unfathomable $3.8 trillion budget. The problem is not the symbols, it is the broken Washington.

McCarthy’s overall point is that we are headed for fiscal ruin on the gravy train of relentless spending by the federal government. Thank you, Captain Obvious. It wasn’t necessary to make that point by denigrating a major grassroots victory in the process. Opposition to earmarking was almost universally a deal-breaker issue for tea party activists and candidates across the country.

McCarthy then goes on to propagate common misconceptions often touted by liberals and earmark appropriators:

[Boehner] doesn’t come close to making the Most Wanted list when it comes to assessing blame for our sorry condition. But neither do earmarks. [. . .] His pose as anti-earmarks crusader is underwhelming, even as complemented by his call for a few good-government reforms to streamline legislation and make the process of passing it transparent. These are fine, as far as they go, but they go no farther than putting band-aids on a cancer.

The whole point about earmarks isn’t that they reflect a small portion of the budget or that banning them would be a major achievement in reducing federal spending. Anybody who follows the issue knows that earmarks aren’t, each individually or even collectively, major budget items. The point is that earmarking inherently corrupts the legislative process, leading to the passage of bloated and unpopular legislation. That is the reason why they should be banned, not because of the direct savings. A closer analogy would be that banning earmarks to improve the country’s fiscal health is like quitting smoking and big macs to improve poor cardiovascular health. You won’t get results overnights, but at least you aren’t doing any more damage.

The effect of earmarks is, without question, destructive. If legislators have pet projects buried in a bill, they can be persuaded to vote for the bill not because of its merit, but because of that member’s pet project hidden within. This is analogous to the way Senator Harry Reid was able to pass Obamacare: special provisions to ‘compensate’ individual senators for their vote. What legislator, other than Lisa Murkowski, would vote for the Bridge to Nowhere on the basis of its merit as a federal expenditure? This larger picture appears to completely evade Mr. McCarthy.

A complete and permanent ban on earmarking at the federal level is one of the most urgently needed reforms which will make passage of popular, conservative legislation more likely, and passage of unpopular liberal legislation less likely. While I appreciate Mr. McCarthy’s take on the subject of the national debt and perpetual deficits, he does not need to denigrate Mr. Boehner’s efforts to enact a complete earmark ban to advance that agenda.

Structural changes to the way we do business in D.C. is the prerequisite to substantive reform. Mr. Boehner is on the right track and is setting the stage for further electoral victories in 2012.