My column on the main site today looks at the debate between Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) over earmarks. DeMint wants Senate Republicans to follow their House counterparts in adopting a moratorium for at least a year. Inhofe argues that this move will do more to empower Obama administration bureaucrats than reduce federal spending.
Inhofe is clearly right on several points: Earmarks represent 1.5 percent of discretionary spending, itself not the category of spending that most drives the growth of the federal budget. Eliminating an earmark mean the money goes unspent. It just means the funds will be disbursed by the executive branch instead. So no spending is actually cut. Under the Constitution, it is Congress’ duty to authorize and appropriate.
But even if this is a constitutional prerogative of Congress, the local projects that are the subject of many earmarks are frequently not. In some cases, the projects that benefit from earmarks are totatlly absurd. DeMint has a point that earmarks are used to secure passage of spending bills that really do cost significant amounts of money (though as we saw with the Cornhusker deal, you don’t always need an earmark to buy someone’s vote for a massive expansion of government using a local project). And it will be very difficult for Republicans to have credibility when it comes to attacking major government expenditures when they are still requesting money for dubious projects back home.
Tom DeLay once suggested to me that earmarks should be allowed provided they relate to a legitimate constitutional function of the federal government — highways, military bases, etc. Even that probably wouldn’t be ideal, as this criteria could probably be fudged. The process for where to spend the money would be politicized. But maybe something akin to that approach could satisfy the objections of both sides of the debate.