The Office of Budget and Management (OMB) provides this definition for the term earmark:
“OMB defines earmarks as funds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents Executive Branch merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to manage critical aspects of the funds allocation process.”Congress used to create policies, establish a budget for carrying out those policies, and then task the executive branch with executing the policies with the budget supplied. Earmarks make an end run around the priority setting process and the competitive bidding process. They amount to micromanagement of the executive branch.
People have come to loathe earmarks, but perhaps for reasons that most don’t quite grasp. This AP article explains why earmarks may not be as bad as the alternative. The author describes how the new transparency and anti-earmark policies of the Obama administration are driving the earmarking process underground. It’s still happening, but it’s actually less transparent than the bad old way.
Why is it that everyone hates earmarks anyway? After all, earmarks actually amount to a paltry portion of the federal budget. And many federal legislators, such as Utah’s Senator Bob Bennett, are “proud” of their efforts to bring federal pork to their home states via earmarks.
It is not the relative size of the earmarks that upsets Americans. It is what earmarks represent. Earmarks are a symptom of a much larger problem. What is that problem?
Tad DeHaven, commenting on the AP article I referenced writes, “The real problem is that few, if any, limitations remain on what our federal masters can spend our money on.” DeHaven makes a good point. But I think that his analysis actually falls short of the “real problem.”
Lobbyists and politicians that game the system exist only in proportion to the amount of resources controlled by the government. The more resources the government controls, the more people there will be lining up to get a share of the government pie. This is really basic. If you want less earmarking and lobbying, you must reduce the scope of government. Period.
Trying to ban political influence trading is like trying to ban flies from a sewage pond on a warm day. So, in a sense, Senator Bennett was right to stand against an earmark ban, because it would amount to nothing more than symbolism and would actually reduce government transparency. But in a more important way, Senator Bennett is wrong to express pride in this system.
I still haven’t gotten to the root of the problem I alluded to above. The government didn’t gain such massive powers over the nation’s resources in one fell swoop. And contrary to what many suggest, this grab was not executed on an unwilling and unaware citizenry. Rather, it is American citizens themselves that are to blame for the current state of affairs.
Yes, my fellow Americans, WE are “the real problem.” How? Why?
WE demand more and more from government. WE demand that government take more control of our economy and provide more services. Every time I turn around, someone is demanding that the government “do something” about this or that. And yet WE demand that taxes not be raised to cover the expanding federal budget.
Americans are a bunch of spoiled children. Like bratty children enjoying the fruits of their parents’ earning with no care about the family budget, we are completely separated from the cost of the government we consume. Is it any wonder that we have an increasingly paternalistic government?
When there is no connection between what you pay and what you get, you have no incentive to limit what you consume. In fact, you have an incentive to consume unnecessarily.
But we Americans, in general, don’t seem to care. We’d rather take the Alfred E. Newman approach. “What, me worry?”