In Defense of Earmarks

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

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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