One of the rallying cries in some political circles preceding the November elections was “No more earmarks!” They must be done away with, according to some candidates and elected members of Congress, lest our democracy crumble into anarchy. Pork barrel spending, it seemed, would go the way of the Edsel as soon as Congress returned for the Lame Duck Session.
As ESPN’s Lee Corso would say: Not so fast, my friend.
Just days after House and Senate GOP leader announced they would “ban” earmarks by asking members to voluntarily shy away from them (akin to asking some children to voluntarily shy away from chocolate milk), Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, the chamber's second-ranking Republican and a vocal anti-earmark crusader, quietly snagged a $200 million earmark for his own state.
Kyl says the money wasn’t really an earmark. It may have looked like an earmark, but it was really more like a nose mark, or something along those lines. Tomato, to-mah-to, his critics responded.
Syntax arguments notwithstanding, today the U.S. Senate formally voted against an earmark ban, with 12 GOP Senators joining the Democrats, while 7 Democrats jumped on the “no earmark” bandwagon.
And therein is where the crux of this debate lies. What is an earmark, and are they inherently bad for democracy?
Earmark critics point to banning the practice as a way to reign in federal spending, which is just a tad disingenuous. Currently, earmarks account for about $16 billion of a $3.5 trillion federal budget. These things aren’t breaking the bank. And further, some of these dollars are in programmatic line items that, earmarked or not, will be spent anyway. The only difference is that the feds (see: President Obama) will decide where the money goes, and not lawmakers. For some earmark foes, that fact probably wakes them up in a cold sweat. The bottom line here is simple: you can oppose them because they look icky, but don’t confuse the issue with a fiscal responsibility argument.
Some of the most conservative members on Congress, for instance, also believe that it is in the best interest of the nation for Congress to continue the practice (we are looking at you, Senator James Inhofe) because elected lawmakers know what their districts need, much more so than nameless, faceless Washington bureaucrats.
Which brings us to the banks of the Susquehanna, where a similar fight is brewing around WAMs. For the uninformed, this “Walking Around Money” is sort of like a Congressional earmark, but with a bit less specificity when the dollars are included in the state budget.
WAM opponents are again beating the drum for an outright ban, coinciding with the swearing-in of a new governor, Tom Corbett. Now is the time, they say, to wipe out WAMs once and for all. Past governors have tried with little success to ban WAMs, so it remains to be seen whether or not Corbett will have any better luck than, say, Tom Ridge did.
But just like in Congress, WAM opponents are proffering the faulty argument that the abolition of state-budget “earmarks” will somehow save Pennsylvania from its fiscal nightmare. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Pennsylvania’s budget is currently hovering around the $27 billion mark; WAMs (by most estimates) accounted for about $100 million of that sum, or far less than 1% of the total budget. Again, if you oppose them because they look or smell bad or offend your sensibilities, fine. Just don’t think you’ve balanced the budget by opposing them.
In Congress, Inhofe points to things like the money for soldiers’ armor and money for unmanned drones as being examples of earmarks that are necessary and proper. In Pennsylvania, WAMs have gone for things like hospital acute care units, fire companies, and bulletproof vests for police officers.
Opponents (as well as some in the media) will point to questionable uses of WAMs as reason enough to ban them all. That is a fair enough point of view, but to some in Congress, that would be akin to banning earmarks because somebody stuck in money for a Bridge to Nowhere (or something crazy like that.)
The question for lawmakers in Pennsylvania will be a simple one. Are lawmakers willing to forgo trying to direct money for causes in their own districts, and instead trim out the $100 or so million that will put them nowhere near balancing a $4 billion deficit? Will Pennsylvania have a James Inhofe, someone who believes they are more comfortable earmarking Pennsylvania dollars than some Harrisburg bureaucrat?
If Congress is any indication, the road to WAM-ban, thank you ma’am, will be a long, difficult one.