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In our opinion: Tackling earmarks again

Published: Friday, Nov. 19 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., walks past someone in a pig costume during a "2010 Congressional Pig Book" news conference.

Mark Wilson, Getty Images

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Amid all the partisan bickering in Washington exists one shining example of bipartisan cooperation — earmark spending.

A study by the advocacy group Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington found a remarkable sense of fair play when it comes to approving directed spending that does not have to go through an open legislative process. Generally, the party in power gets about 60 percent of the cash, and the minority receives 40 percent. That way, no one squawks too much because that would make everyone look bad.

This week, Senate Republicans voted to approve a two-year ban on earmarks, which also often are called "pork-barrel spending." Their resolution brings up another thing that can be counted on — one party or another generally will try to attack earmark spending in order to gain political advantage. In 2006, it was Democrats taking the high road, a tactic that helped them reclaim the majority for a time.

Earmark spending is not necessarily offensive because of the things it funds. Many such projects are legitimate and much-needed. It isn't bankrupting the nation. Earmarks account for roughly 1 percent of the federal budget.

It is wrong for two reasons. One is that earmarks attach themselves to unrelated bills and don't receive proper debate and discussion as they move through the legislative process. The other is that the money becomes more closely associated with power and influence than with merit. When states lose powerful representatives, as happened in many instances this year, they also stand to lose their share of these funds. Also, some lawmakers have been accused of expecting large donations in return for directing federal spending toward a particular constituent.

Critics of any earmark ban, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., say they are the legislative branch's only way to direct spending and it would be wrong to let the executive branch alone make such decisions. They also will attempt to make arguments about how it is a time-honored part of the American system of governance.

The second argument has little merit. Taxpayers for Common Sense says Congress approved only a dozen earmarks in the defense spending bill in 1970. By 2005 the figure had reached 2,000. All told, in 2010 there were 9,499 earmarks attached to bills for a combined $15.9 billion. The first concern has some merit, however.

Congress has changed the rules so that lawmakers now must put their names to their earmarks. That's a good step toward transparency, but it still doesn't give these expenditures the public debate they require. If the legislative branch is serious about reform, it ought to devise a process by which money is distributed based on the merits of projects or on a formula that provides for an equitable dispersion of funds.

That certainly would be more effective than meaningless party-line pledges that never seem to go very far.

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