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The Nation

In Defense of Earmarks

Melissa Harris-Lacewell

The US Senate spent yesterday freaking out on Capitol Hill about the spending bill. Senators are wrangling about its passage because so many of the proposed spending items fall under the broad category "earmarks." Can we pause for just a minute? I need to point out that earmarks are not necessarily evil.

Let me say it one more time is this totally psychotic political environment: Earmarks are not necessarily bad.

An earmark is just a way of describing a government funded project where the spending is designated for a particular group or location.

In other words, all taxpayers pay into one big federal taxation pot. Then the funds from that pot have to be divided up and spent. Some of the money is spent on things that impact all citizens equally (national defense) and some of the money is spent on things that benefit only a small group of people. For example, if federal tax dollars repair a road between South Carolina and Georgia, then the people who regularly travel along that road will get more benefit than commuters in Wisconsin. Or if federal tax dollars support a middle school on a Navajo reservation then the students who attend that school will get the benefit while their public school peers in center city Boston don't. Get it?

But there is nothing inherently evil or bad about such a system. In fact, it is nearly impossible to imagine any other way of crafting a federal budget. Of course we all pay into the pot. Of course some projects benefit some localities and other projects benefit other localities. This is part of the genius of our Founding Fathers. They created a system with multiple layers of accountability. Members of the House of Representatives are elected from local districts and they are supposed to worry about being responsive to local interests. They are reelected every 2 years to ensure maximum accountability to these local interests. It is their job to make sure that many of the local spending projects end up in their district. If your representative is not doing this then you should fire her! Seriously. Please make sure that federal government money is allocated to your community and if it isn't please run against your member of Congress in 2010.

Now Senators are elected from states and are supposed have somewhat broader interests. They have a longer electoral clock (6 years) so that they can think more long term and because they are accountable to an entire state they are supposed to take a broader view. Good. Senators are not as accountable to localized interests. Each of us is BOTH a citizen of a congressional district and of a state. It is right and proper to have both our local interests and state interests represented in political bargaining. Part of the reason every state has 2 senators is so we can have overlapping understandings of what it means to represent a state.

Then there is the president who has a view of the entire nation and so is meant to guard broad national interests alongside the local concerns. At its best it is a great system where the multiple overlapping constituencies allow all of our interests to have some chance of representation.

The system is not made better by denying the reality of local interests just to claim to be doing everything in the national interest. We are a country of states, we are states of cities, we are cities of neighborhoods. Each of us, each of our communities, makes up the big picture.

Local spending projects (earmarks) are just part of that process. The only way to govern without local spending proects is for the federal government to simply give all the money to the states and let the states decide how to spend the cash. Trust me when I tell you that this is not a good idea. If you have any doubt about what happens when states are allowed to set autonomous policy without federal intervention then I suggest you spend some time reading about slavery and the Civil War.

We should not be hoodwinked by partisan alarmists railing about "billions in earmarks bloating the massive spending bill." There certainly are bad and wasteful local spending projects, just as there are good and noble ones. The simple fact that we spend federal tax money in localities does not make these projects bad. We need to think about the value of projects within a larger framework of both responsible fiscal governance at the federal level and responsiveness to constituency needs at a local level.

Balancing responsible and responsive governing is not easy. It requires tough political bargaining, difficult decision making, and sometimes ideologically directed choices. But that is OK, that is part of how a democracy works.

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Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, is completing her latest book, Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn't Enough.

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