Coons: Earmarks

With the massive increases in the federal budget, there’s been a lot of talk about earmarks, or “pork-barrel spending.”  One of the recent bailout bills included an estimated 8,500 earmarks.  And with any call to decrease government spending, accompanying pleas to get rid of the pork soon follow.

But what is an earmark?  Does it really increase spending?  If all the pork-barrel earmarks were removed, would the budget go down?

An earmark is a congressional provision that directs approved funds to be spent on specific projects.  Congress decides that it’s going to spend some amount of money on some vague list of projects, the specifics of which it delegates to bureaucrats.  Individual congressmen can then insert an earmark, which takes a portion of those funds and directs them to something more specific.  So an earmark doesn’t actually change the level of spending, it just provides instructions on how previously-approved funds are to be spent.

So if the 8,500 earmarks didn’t exist in the bailout legislation, it wouldn’t have changed the dollar amount at all.  Instead, it would have increased the funds headed straight to the Executive branch without oversight, where unelected individuals get to decide how it’s spent, instead of those we elect to Congress.

One has to wonder — Would it be better if all of the funds were earmarked?  Instead of giving the Executive branch $1 trillion dollars and saying “Have fun!”, Congress could instead say, “Here’s $1 trillion, and here’s how you’re going to use it.”  While it would be better to not spend the $1 trillion in the first place; if it is to be spent, it should be spent by the people we elect.


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