Earmarks have become the poster-child for “wasteful Washington spending.” Nearly every day, members of Congress and talking heads on both sides of the aisle take out their sledgehammers and bash earmarks as if they are the sole cause of our national debt problems. These views represent an exaggeration of the size and a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of earmarks.
First, as Restoring America’s Future points out on multiple occasions, earmarks represent a miniscule amount of the federal budget. This year, outlays were nearly $3.6 trillion, while earmarks comprised just $16 billion of that total. Even if we removed that entire amount from the budget, it would barely make a dent in our long-run debt problem. Granted, some of the earmarked funds do go toward genuinely wasteful projects that should be scrapped (think Bridges to Nowhere). But, the hyperbole of many politicians leads the public to believe that items such as earmarks and foreign aid are significant pieces of the budget, whereas the reality is quite to the contrary.
Even more important is the point that Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) made (at approx. 0:56) in the final meeting of the Fiscal Commission. Eliminating earmarks will not actually save the federal government a single dollar. Simply stated, earmarks are congressionally-directed spending. The appropriations committee allocates a certain amount of discretionary funding to each area of the budget. Whether all of this money is reserved for the federal agencies to distribute or whether a small fraction of it is targeted to specific projects by Congress is irrelevant to how much total money is available. Freezing the discretionary accounts will produce savings, but eliminating earmarks represents a mere shuffling of who gets to allocate the money.
Earmarks are being portrayed as a critical litmus test to differentiate those who are serious about stabilizing our debt from those who are not. But in reality, earmarks are nothing of the sort; they’re merely a shiny symbol for those in the political world who wish to hide behind the veil of debt reduction without actually confronting any of the difficult choices required to restore fiscal order.