If members of Congress truly have been born again as fiscal conservatives in the wake of the recent tea party-influenced elections, they should focus on trimming the big-ticket parts of the federal budget. Instead, Republican members are pledging to ban earmarks, the practice of including small spending items targeted to local projects in large, must-pass bills. Starting small makes sense only if they plan to move quickly up the ladder to the more costly discretionary spending; the proof of that will come later.
If earmarks are indeed banned, and members don’t find ways to get those projects funded through another back door in the budget, Congress can take a bow. But a more realistic approach would be to acknowledge that earmarks serve a purpose, cap them, make them more visible to voters and spread them around the country equally.
Earmarks account for less than 1 percent of federal expenditures, but they have come to symbolize unaccountable, wasteful government spending. They are especially galling to voters because residents of one state fail to benefit from specialized spending in another. Georgia residents, for example, don’t see an obvious benefit from spending on researching better ice and snow removal on roads in North Dakota.
A better way is possible. Earmarks could be capped, perhaps at a total of three-quarters of a percent of federal expenditures. A second key component to earmark reform is to ensure that each congressional district gets the same amount of federal largesse. This will be the most difficult change to achieve. Historically, powerful members such as the late Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia have been able to land piles of federal funding for their states.
Members of Congress and senators should have to justify to the voters their choices for funding. They should be required to post on their websites lists of those requesting funding and those selected for funding.
The mood at the moment favors a ban. “The American people have spoken loud and clear that they are angry with the nation’s current fiscal policies, highlighted by out-of-control government spending and the burgeoning federal budget deficit,” Sen. Olympia Snowe said earlier this month. The GOP’s proposed moratorium on earmarks “may be a small step, but it is an important step to demonstrate that we are listening,” she said.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate who has defended bringing pork barrel spending to his state, indicated he would reverse his position. President Barack Obama also is singing from the anti-earmark hymnal.
We must acknowledge that for some projects, only the federal government has deep enough pockets to make an impact. The University of Maine’s offshore wind power work is one example. As long as our congressional delegation can defend such spending to voters, and explain why it won funding and why others did not, the process would be greatly improved.