Earmarks Are Back. The GOP’s Enthusiasm Is Worrying.

A decade ago, one of the first things Republicans did after taking back the House of Representatives was get rid of earmarks. For those of you who don’t recall, “earmark” is the term of art for when members of Congress bring home the bacon to their district. The GOP was in a Tea Party-ish mood back then, and getting rid of “bridges to nowhere,” etc., was all the rage. 

At the time, I thought the earmark ban was an encouraging sign of reform. But in recent years, I’ve changed my mind somewhat. Yes, the practice had gotten out of control, and it drove some corrupt practices. But if the issue was runaway spending and debt, getting rid of earmarks was always more symbolic than serious. The main drivers of our national debt have always been entitlements, not road projects or ice skating rinks. 

If the price of getting Congress to implement serious entitlement reforms was a gold-plated monorail in every congressional district, it would be well worth it. Besides, who’s to say that a politician in constant contact with his district’s voters and civic leaders won’t have a better understanding of what his or her community needs than some bureaucrat a thousand miles away?

Also, getting rid of earmarks didn’t get rid of spending. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Kevin Kosar documents in a new report, “Restoring the power of the purse: Earmarks and re-empowering legislators to deliver local benefits,” Congress still allocated money for transportation projects, community rec centers, scientific studies, etc. It’s just that the legislative branch gave up a lot of those decisions. Bureaucrats and political appointees in the executive branch got to decide where the goodies went. Getting rid of earmarks made almost no difference at all, and in some cases discretionary spending went up after the moratorium.

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