In the Arena

In Praise of Earmarks

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I have a new print column about Steven Spielberg’s splendid film Lincoln–which is an advertisement for a greasier, less puritanical form of politics.

22 comments
slw
slw

Mr. Klein, I generally enjoy your writing and follow you pretty consistently, both in Time and on Morning Joe.  While your opinions and columns are generally are well informed, in my opinion, on health care, I believe you are largely wrong.  In a recent column you wrote that competition in health care (or health insurance more specifically) will help bring prices down.  I've been in the industry (on all sides) for nearly 30 years and can tell you that insiders (you may want to see what Aetna's CEO says about competition) no longer believe the market will bring health care costs down.  The reasons for this are many and varied so I won't provide my arguments here.  My goal is to urge you to talk to people more broadly about why health care costs are so high in America and why competition isn't likely to change that.  It would do a world of good since you are, in my opinion, one of the more reasonable voices on issues.  Steve Williams

LegalBagel
LegalBagel

Earmarks are, on a real percentage basis, much less likely to end up being wasted spending than DC bureaucrat-directed budget spending shoved through Congress.  Members of Congress (and their staffers) have a much better idea of what spending needs to be done in their home districts than some guy sitting in DC who has never seen a particular bridge on the Interstate in a state of disrepair or the good work being done for a classified program that can only be funded by earmarks because the DOD budget gurus are too busy lining the pockets of wasteful projects at large, publicly traded, unionized defense contractors.  

Cutting out earmarks turns the Constitution on its head.  Spending decisions are supposed to start with Congress, not with bureaucrats who don't have to answer to the people.  Being against earmarks means that you are ultimately supportive of the executive branch making spending decisions -- and that's anti-constitutional as well as being naive about how wasteful the executive branch employees can be with their budgeting.  McCain et al. in the Republican Party really got this wrong.  

I've been fighting this fight for a while: I wrote the paper read by the Republican leader in the House who opposed the earmarks ban back in 2008.  I sent my thoughts on the subject to a staffer, who presented it to the member of Congress, who then contacted me and asked if it was okay to circulate it to the Republican caucus and used it as the basis to fight the earmarks ban in the House. I have tried to engage in the democratic process on this and many other matters and know this one thing:  I have always had an easier time getting an answer from senators and representatives (of both parties) than from any bureaucrat in DC about why money is being spent (or not spent) a certain way.  

If we want to take the government back for the people, we need to return spending controls to the House and Senate:  That includes not just allowing earmarks, but encouraging them as a meaningful and important part of what it means to "represent" a certain constituency.  Frankly, the White House and the executive agencies need to have their wings clipped a bit.  It would be nice to allow Congress to spend money where it needs to be spent on a localized basis and have less of it wasted on bureaucracies that are removed and often hidden from the people.

outsider
outsider

still waiting to hear why there needs to be a second engine for the F-35 when the first one works fine. 

The only reason for it is that the second engine is manufactured in Boehners district. 

That's it. 

I hope that isn't the kind of earmark you're advocating JK. 

MrObvious
MrObvious

I'm all for our political body to negotiate. Pretty much everything in life is a matter of finding common ground and agree on something. That usually means giving up puritan beliefs for a 'greater' good.

But so much of today's earmarks comes from adding stuff outside basic debate. Many things that is bundled into legislation either to force a vote on something unpopular for political reasons or to push through something that would normally not pass.

And for most part this leads to poor or bad legislation.

It's hard to compare the passing of the 13th amendment in the same context as today sausage making that generally leads to a lot of tax money blown on lobbying with minor gains for citizens at large.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

Earmarks also cripple and stymie Congress (often defeating massive and necessary bills due to stupid things attached to them), and force some of the worse spending decisions upon the American public.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

@LegalBagel My problem with earmarks is that insofar as the local economies know best how to direct government spending then they should be doing so with local revenues. 

I wrote this post several years ago:

http://phd9.blogspot.com/2009/03/more-earmarks.html

The problem with earmarks is that EVERYBODY does it. For weeks now I've been comparing the Federal trough to a lottery pool. Everyone pays into one big pot and then competes to see who can draw the most money back out. If anyone were serious about reducing earmarks, then they would simultaneously be favoring doubling State Income or Sales taxes. By acting like a financial heat-sink, the Federal government gets to participate in the sleight of hand that allows people to think that they're getting something for nothing.

.The only difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is that the Republicans howl about the process while the Democrats simply shrug their shoulders and proceed..Guess which approach is more dishonest?

outsider
outsider

@LegalBagel 

I liked your post; didn't agree with some of it, but thought it was good - but i'm curious - you wrote If we want to take the government back for the people - i'm curious, take back from whom?  The beurocrats in Washington are Americans too - though you'll get no argument from me on the basic principle of them not being very helpful. 

I'm not being facetious, or trying to make a point, or start something. I'm really curious about why you'd write that - what the background thought on it is. 

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@outsider2011 

Side note: a long while ago, a Boeing 737 crashed into the ground killing everyone after it did an absolutely illogical maneuver.  After a thorough investigation, they basically came up with an unknown mechanical failure most likely in the rudder.  A while later, a second 737 crashes killing everyone on board.  Again, they do an analysis.  Again, they come up with no answers.  A while later, a 737 manages to recover from a suspected similar mechanical failure only because the pilot practically stood on the rudder pedal to keep them from crashing into the ground (well, that and it probably didn't fail).  The belief that this is likely the third time that the same model failed from the same problem means that if this investigation turns up nothing, they will have to ground the entire fleet - the #1 brand of aircraft in the WORLD would be grounded.  As it so happens, they figured it out (the thing that controlled which way the rudder was turned could handle cold temperatures, could handle warm temperatures, but apparently could fail while thawing) and so we still have 737s flying, but the reason I mention this is this is the argument for the second engine: if it's determined in the future that something might be wrong with the engine and they can't figure it out, the last thing they want is the F-35 fleet to be grounded.

Now, what's the likelihood of that happening?  Tiny.  To my knowledge, only two models have ever either risked or suffered a grounding - the 737 and DC-10 (and the latter only because the guys at McDonald-Douglass were the dumbest idiots on the face of the planet).  And really, I'd consider it a symptom of the fact that they tried to make the F-35 the God of all possible scenarios and absurdly expensive instead of going with a plethora of cheaper specialized models that could provide redundancy in their diverse capabilities, but to say that it is an issue entirely without merit is not fair.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@outsider2011 It wasn't an earmark.  It was a planned budgetary expense that, to secure votes, was manufactured in Boehner's district.  Stupid?  Yes.  Earmark?  No.

UMMLocal12
UMMLocal12

Boehner's district is one thing, but single sourcing a key component of a complicated system is a high risk decision that may very well be a bad idea.

LegalBagel
LegalBagel

@MrObvious -- All politics are local.  Appealing to local interests is the way representatives get elected.  Have you ever heard a member of Congress say that she was so happy to ship jobs to another state or so happy that the "fair" distribution of funds led to a big government project (other than something like Yucca Mountain) going elsewhere?  Of course not.  People want jobs, good infrastructure and to know that their representative is "fighting for them."  The American system of government was devised to pit all of the local interests against one another and have some really ugly compromises come out as a result.  It's what Madison, Hamilton, et al. intended.  It may not be pretty or efficient but it sure beats the alternative, which is pretty and efficient government (aka dictatorship).

LegalBagel
LegalBagel

@PaulDirks @LegalBagel -- You raise an excellent point.  I largely agree.  I would like to see the federal government reduce its taxation footprint and see local governments increase theirs.  The federal government crowds out the taxation capacity of state and local governments.  

LegalBagel
LegalBagel

@outsider2011 @LegalBagel -- I appreciate your point.  Bureaucrats are not all evil people.  Most of them are fine people who are trying to do their best.  Yes, they are American but they are not entitled to control any part of government.  They are delegated authority from Congress and Congress needs to do a better job of overseeing how that authority is used.  The House, in particular, should build up a much more robust budgeting and appropriations coordination process.  

As for your question about the whom, I think it is something like this:  The President (meaning the White House) is the first whom.  Too much legislating has been done by executive fiat (including executive orders) for too long.  I'm not just making a dig at President Obama but this applies to many decades of abuse.  Every time there has been an emergency in this nation, executives have taken on additional powers and seldom have they relinquished them.  I'd really like to see Congress re-assert itself as an institution and push back against the presidency and executive agencies a lot more.  We also need to see the courts be recognized for what they are -- legal institutions that should be much less involved in making political decisions.  Congress is the most "democratic" of all institutions and yet it is derided, while the people running roughshod over the Constitution -- the judiciary and executive are applauded.  Why?  Because they make efficient-looking decisions.  If we believe in a representative government, we really need to get over the ugliness of compromise and local politics bearing its ugly head.  I'll take a member of Congress over the president, a judge or a bureaucrat any day.  Why?  They are the only ones who are forced to deal with the people.  So I would like to see them take the government back (take more power back) from the executive, judiciary and bureaucracy.  Controlling the power of the purse is a great way to go about it.  

outsider
outsider

@forgottenlord @outsider2011 

As i said, i thought all the points are good points; but it's the details where things break down. And, this being about boehners district was what bothered me. 

outsider
outsider

@UMMLocal12 

Good point - but couldn't you make the same point about the whole plane?

MrObvious
MrObvious

@LegalBagel @MrObvious 

I'm talking about earmarks where one side adds unpopular items to say Military spending in order to force a no vote to score political points OR to force through something that would normally not pass just because X spending have to be done.

Earmarks where a house member tries to benefit their district is all fair and part of their job. They're there to lobby for their voters.

outsider
outsider

@LegalBagel @outsider2011 

Thanks LB. I agree about the legislation; originally the President's position wasn't supposed to be powerful, it was designed to be weaker than the other two branches - or at least congress. 

By the People, for the people. But as you said, successive Presidents have expanded that control. 

So as far as that goes, i'm in complete agreement. 

I think i questioned the wording because take back implies it's held by someone other than Americans. And honestly, there has been way too much divisiveness in politics for a while; but i didn't want to accuse you of being divisive, so i was curious. 

Thanks for explaining. 

outsider
outsider

@UMMLocal12 

Those are all good questions. 

How were things done before?

How do other countries handling funding?

Should the US follow that example? 

Should the US not?

Would not following that example be based on solid, logical reasoning, or hubris?

Would following those same examples also be a lead to the US subverting it's own will to foreign influence?

I don't know. But i know that usually planes aren't made by a pile of different companies. That's just one example of course. And one that bothers me - but there are lots of other issues, beyond the plane engine. 

Your point is a good one. It's just too easy to start getting lost in the details. 

I don't think a blanket statement (get rid of earmarks, don't get rid of them) works. It's too complex an issue to just answer with bumbersticker answers, or sound bites. 

UMMLocal12
UMMLocal12

Yes, I think you can.  Do we need only one F-35 model? Or maybe 2 cheaper models from different manufaturers.But if you go down that road, the discussion gets complicated and ends up addressing the basic philosophy of buying equipment.  How much sophistication do we really need and how much are we willing to pay for it?  Does it even address the real threat?  What about the industrial base that builds these things?  Then throw in the question of how many compromises you will have to make to get the political support to spend the money.  Then factor in the idea that the procurement process will take 10 years or more before we see a product and the people who run the program will change during the process.  There really are valid reasons why we get the equipment and the expenditures we do.  The results are both risky and expensive.  A Congressperson making sure that money gets spent in his district is annoying,  but only one small aspect of the problem (since this thread is about earmarks).

MrObvious
MrObvious

@LegalBagel

I'm not talking about 'killing earmarks'. I'm thinking more in terms of reforming them. One way of doing this is to force people to attach appropriate earmarks to appropriate bills. And  there just have to be a way to introduce rules where you can't attach nonsense stuff just to force political votes.

They can do this; we're not talking about science here. 

But as long as earmarks become political tools you will see more waste and most of all more obstruction. And that'll only hurt those who want to use earmarks for what they should be - a way to benefit the districts they're from which I think is a fully legit way of operating.

LegalBagel
LegalBagel

@MrObvious @LegalBagel - Unfortunately, by killing earmarks, Congress has thrown out the "good" earmarks with the "bad" -- like the baby with the bath water.  It's not like ending earmarks has made a dent in the federal budget deficit either.  I see the earmark argument as a distraction from the big structural issues that plague the nation's long-term economic viability and democratic capacity.