Friday, March 13, 2009


It’s hard to know how worked up to get about Congressional earmarks. Forget what Republicans say about fruit flies and bullet trains; much earmarked spending is beneficial and necessary. It’s also true it makes up a small proportion of federal spending, less than two percent in the recently passed omnibus spending bill.

Still, these are tough times; if they’re such an insignificant percentage of the total bill, we can probably get along without them. A symbolic gesture in the direction of fiscal responsibility would be appreciated, since we don’t have the money to pay for any of this stuff right now. Even in good times, worthwhile spending should be able to pass the muster of public scrutiny; After all, it’s our money.

While Republicans get most of the headlines for their constant railing against tax-and-spend Democrats, they are hardly blameless, as six of the top ten Senate earmarkers are Republicans. (David Vitter is on the list. I couldn’t tell how much of his $249 million is for Bourbon Street hooker.) In the interests of fairness, it should be pointed out that Democratic senators have their names on earmarks costing 20% more. (Comparisons are easy, since this is last year’s bill, when both parties had 49 senators. The two independents—Lieberman and Jeffers—were relative misers, spending on average only 28% as much as their peers.)

So it can be stipulated that both parties are at fault here. Democrats earmark more per capita; Republicans have a much higher hypocrisy quotient, because they constantly bitch about earmarks while still bringing home the bacon, to mix metaphors. (Since I’m establishing a precedent and trying to be fair, seven senators attached their names to no earmarks at all: Republicans Coburn, DeMint, McCain, and Stevens; Democrats Feingold, McCaskill, and Obama. Remember, this bill came from last year’s Congress.)

In a perfect world (one run by me), there would be no earmarks. Every dollar spent would be subject to scrutiny, to be defended by its proponents. This might mean Congress would have to work four days a week, but this is a perfect world we’re talking about here. We all know neither of these are going to happen. I propose a compromise: cap the dollar amounts for every member of Congress. The average cost per senator in this bill is $200 million; the median is about $75 million. In the spirit of saving money, let’s say that senators can put their names on earmarks totaling no more than $50 million. Representatives would be capped at about $12 million each, because of their greater numbers and generally smaller districts.

This won’t solve the problem, but it would be a start.

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