The great earmark debate: Who should determine federal spending priorities?

Opponents in the debate over earmarks have never fallen neatly along the partisan divide. Outspoken critics – organizations such as Citizens Against Government Waste and Taxpayers for Common Sense, as well as legislators such as Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) – decry the earmark process as a waste of taxpayer dollars at best, and a sign of corruption in the Capitol at worst. At the same time, many other commentators, policy analysts, and legislators from both sides of the aisle maintain a pragmatic view of earmarks as the “grease” that turns the wheels of our country’s political machine.

To be sure, earmarks have, at times, been both wasteful and politically self-serving. Funding in 2005 for the nearly $400 million “Bridge to Nowhere” was the controversial spark that ultimately led to Congress banning earmarks altogether in 2011. It is no mystery that at least part of the difficulty Congress has had in passing spending bills in recent years can be attributed to the ban on earmarks, as they were a form of currency members could use to trade political favors.

The reigning debate over whether earmarks are fundamentally about either keeping corruption out (the idealist perspective) or allowing the wheels of the political machine to turn more easily (the pragmatist perspective) is secondary to the central issue. Simply put, the real debate is about power over spending and who should have it.

Since Congress banned earmarks in 2011, awareness of their centrality in the budgetary process has increased because executive branch power has grown significantly since 2011, and the importance of the balance of budgetary authority is still not well understood. We are more accustomed to hearing and reading stories about flashy political favor-trading and crippling legislative gridlock than budgetary process.

But if earmarks truly represented more spending of taxpayer dollars, or if earmarks were spent on inherently more wasteful projects, then no politician would seek the attention they provide.

The reality is that earmarks do not increase spending, nor are they inherently more wasteful, or without beneficiaries. Earmarks simply redistribute money that has already been appropriated. They are what happens when legislators attempt to allocate funding for projects or priorities that often benefit their constituents.

In a recent paper, I showed that the earmark ban had little impact on the way federal grant dollars were distributed across congressional districts. Legislators who used earmarking before the ban most likely found alternative ways to allocate funding to their home districts after the ban. For example, in a practice known as “lettermarking,” members contact agency officials directly to request that agencies use appropriated money to fund specific projects in their home districts. Another approach has been for members to modify authorization bills to favor particular geographic areas, a more roundabout way of achieving earmarked appropriations.

The takeaway is that legislators are still motivated to override federal agency priorities when those priorities do not work for their constituents; before 2011, earmarks provided a sanctioned method for members to achieve this result. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General found in 2007 that 9 out of 10 projects earmarked in a Federal Aviation Administration grant program for airport facility improvements would not have been funded without being earmarked and that the inclusion of these projects had caused higher priority projects to be delayed by 3 years or more.

Should we find this troubling? Reports like these certainly appear to support – and in the case of the 2007 report did, in fact, support – the ban on earmarks. Of course, spending via earmarks is almost always motivated by political gain. Members of Congress relish getting allocated funding for big projects in their home districts. Bringing home the bacon helps them achieve their main priority: reelection.

Previous research has shown that earmark allocations are  correlated with legislator attributes such as party affiliation, seniority, and membership on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Critics of earmarks point to these connections as evidence of corruption in Congress. But this view seems to assume that executive branch agencies have the “right” budgetary priorities to begin with. This introduces a deeper question: How do we determine what the right priorities are?

Put another way, are funds allocated by legislator priorities somehow more wasteful than those allocated by bureaucrat priorities? It’s a tough question to study because of the inherent difficulties in defining and measuring “effective” federal spending.

In my research on earmarks, I experimented with a wide range of potential ways to quantify federal spending effectiveness. Ultimately, I determined that no metric could reliably provide such a measure because people want different things. More to the point, beliefs about what the government should prioritize when spending taxpayer dollars vary widely, and in a society that values personal liberties and freedoms, every belief is equally valid. How, then, to decide?

The economic approach, and the one that the Constitution’s framers seemed to have adopted, assumes that people respond to incentives. The key difference between a legislator and an agency official is that a bureaucrat is motivated to adhere to executive branch priorities, while a legislator is motivated to avoid deviating from their constituents’ priorities.

When it comes to setting federal spending priorities, the executive branch should follow Congress’s lead; allowing executive agency priorities to supersede legislative branch priorities (i.e. the peoples’ priorities) short circuits an important feedback loop that holds the government accountable for taxpayer dollars: elections.

Earmarks or no earmarks, the power of the purse belongs in the hands of those who are incentivized to represent constituent concerns. There will always be abuses of power and bad ideas – we probably have not seen the last Bridge to Nowhere – but giving elected officials, not appointed officials, the power over taxpayer dollars puts spending authority where it belongs.

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Topics: Budget & Appropriations
Tags: Steven Gordon
Steven Gordon
Steven Gordon is founder of Sphere Quantitative Insights and Associate Fellow at the Pegasus Institute. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the Universit...