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Earmark Reform: Who Decides How Tax Money is Spent?

My colleague Dodd makes a strong argument as to why “Earmark Reform Isn’t Just Symbolism” but rather a tool to substantially reduce wasteful spending by the Federal government and return power to local authorities. It’s reasonable to assume that eliminating earmarks could well reduce costs beyond the trivial portion of the Federal budget that’s actually earmarked since,  presumably, Congressmen would have less incentive to press for massive projects if they can’t ensure getting a slice for their constituency.

But, unless eliminating earmarks coincides with a radical reconception of how our government operates, it may be a step in the wrong direction. The Feds spend billions on highways, airports, and other infrastructure projects.  Without earmarks, we’d basically have Federal bureaucrats deciding how to spend that money.  That may in fact be less wasteful and more efficient.  But I don’t see how this doesn’t constitute a major redistribution of discretionary power away from Congress — who’s supposed to decide how Federal funds are allocated — to unelected people not mentioned in the Constitution.

Worse, a predictable result would be the transfer of the ability to “earmark” funds from 535 Members of Congress who are checked by the need to wheel and deal with one another and get the president’s signature to a single individual: the president.   It’s inconceivable that, immediately upon the discretion for spending billions of dollars moved away from the Congress to the executive branch, we won’t see executive orders “earmarking” money for states where the president needs to curry favor for himself or his party.   Or that the president won’t start using that discretionary power as a club to persuade Members to vote for legislation that he favors.

The alternative outcome that earmark opponents would prefer would be a substantial cut in the Federal budget and taxation, with states and localities funding their own infrastructure projects.  But there’s no guarantee whatsoever that this would happen.

Further, while I’d be happy to see some of the more egregious projects currently funded by earmarks (the various shrines to long-serving Congressmen and local heroes and such) go away, it actually makes sense for the interstate highway system, as the most obvious example, to be planned and funded centrally.   Otherwise, they’ll be designed with local use rather than interstate transit in mind.   Not to mention relying on the vagaries of state and local financing.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    But, unless eliminating earmarks coincides with a radical reconception of how our government operates, it may be a step in the wrong direction. The feds spend billions on highways, airports, and other infrastructure projects. Without earmarks, we’d basically have federal bureaucrats deciding how to spend that money. That may in fact be less wasteful and more efficient. But I don’t see how this doesn’t constitute a major redistribution of discretionary power away from Congress — who’s supposed to decide how Federal funds are allocated — to unelected people not mentioned in the Constitution.

    I think the “faceless bureaucrats” argument is emotional, and seriously damaging.

    Consider again those bridges. The Federal DOT and your state’s DOT have data. They have Vehicle MIles Traveled data on each road in their system. They have staff and computers looking at how to improve throughput with minimum investment. They can model return on investment.

    And then consider what happens when there is an end-run around to Congress and an earmark … what happens? Someone with juice tells a congressman that a big bridge is a good idea? It wouldn’t be a bridge-building contractor, would it? A steel or concrete supplier?

    No. You’ve got the wrong end of this, and are mistaking an opportunity for direct corruption with an opportunity for direct representation.

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  2. john personna says:

    (Don’t tell me that congressmen have a kid-genius in the back room, modeling optimum bridge placement on his homebrew supercomputer, and that is the glory of congressional micromanagement.)

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    john personna:

    Faceless bureaucrats are immune from political considerations? As is the case with all other human being they are human beings, complete with prejudices, preferences, agenda, and political views. We don’t have a choice between corrupt, self-seeking politicians making spending decisions for base political reasons on the one hand and benign philospher-kings making decisions solely on merits on the other. We have a choice between not terribly accountable politicians and completely unaccountable bureaucrats who will unerringly act to prolong the problems they’re supposed to solve.

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  4. john personna says:

    Well Dave, you didn’t open with a terribly strong claim. “Faceless bureaucrats are immune from political considerations?”

    Not immune, but certainly more insulated. Not only that, with stronger institutional rules (and laws) against accepting direct lobbying.

    Come on, “they are human beings” and so we have better odds of a good bridge from a busy congressman who’s staff’s major focus is on reelection?

    Seriously?

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  5. john personna says:

    We should really remember why “the bridge to nowhere” caught fire as a political issue.

    It’s because it was an obvious example of what we really suspect all along. The congressmen don’t care where the bridge goes. They just want the bridge. And another bridge.

    You hope, I’m sure, that all those other bridges were somehow sensible, but you have no way of knowing.

    You should certainly understand that in a world where “incentives matter” the congressmen don’t have an incentive to build the best bridge. They only have incentive to build another bridge.

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  6. Dave Schuler says:

    You might want to read Michael Crozier’s The Bureaucratic Phenomenon. Here’s a quote:

    A bureaucratic organization is an organization that can not correct its behaviour by learning from its errors

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  7. john personna says:

    You are making an emotional argument, Dave. You aren’t grappling with what DOTs do, and what metrics they have. You are taking refuge in a general skepticism that all human organizations are bad.

    DOTs have metrics. They judge their success at the end of year by VMT and accident rate.

    Can you step back and think about what you are really suggesting here?

    You prefer the human institution of “congressional staff” over the transportation engineers judged on the success of their efforts?

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  8. PD Shaw says:

    JP, your metrics have nothing to do with earmarks. Identifying projects to advance is a policy decision, pretending that it is not merely gives regulators the opportunity to expand their bureacracy. See Cadillac Desert.

    This is what my state’s DOT did with the stimulus; they advanced projects that maximized funding the state’s payroll.

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  9. Billy says:

    This illustrates the fallacy behind the attacks on the APA and “unelected bureaucrats” who aren’t listed in the constitution. First, we delegate authority to the agencies because they are better equipped to become technical experts in a highly complex society. I don’t think Nancy Pelosi is better suited to decide what chemicals are harmful to small children when trace elements are found in water tables than are the career scientists employed by the EPA.

    Second, “unelected” does not mean “unaccountable.” If there is evidence that a bureaucrat is on the take, their career is effectively over. However, Dollar Bill Jefferson gets elected after law enforcement finds $90,000 in the freezer.

    We give the agencies authority because our elected officials aren’t any damn good at things that matter, like building roads and bridges and analyzing the effects of pharmaceuticals. I challenge anyone to argue this proposition.

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  10. john personna says:

    Well then fix your DOT, PD.

    That is a much more rational solution than thinking that your congressman’s staff, in their part time, can do better.

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  11. john personna says:

    Also, when DOT chooses project and congress (or legislature) sets budget, there is a natural and productive tension.

    We should demand of the DOT that they do the best they can with the money given. We should demand of legislators to give them no more money than required.

    When you mix, the natural outcome is not so productive. Of course congress will give enough budget to cover their earmarks! What is this fantasy that it is cut to the bone, and then directed to pet projects?

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  12. PD Shaw says:

    The Secretary of the U.S. DOT is the former Congressman from Caterpillar. If you think giving him the descretion to decide which roads to build and where is not tied to an understanding of road construction as a support for that industry, I’ll have a bridge to sell you that they will be happy to build for me.

    Project selection, which is what earmarks do, are policy questions; issues of cost, design and performance are technical and suitable for administrative agency decisionmaking.

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  13. James Joyner says:

    @John,

    I allow (“That may in fact be less wasteful and more efficient.”) that it’s possible that having experts make the decisions could be better, although I share Dave’s concerns about the issue. Elected politicians are at least theoretically responsive to the needs of their constituents. That simply can’t be said for the bureaucrats. And I don’t mean that term in any derisive sense — they’re unelected functionaries who carry out their work under a set of procedures.

    Regardless, you don’t address the second part of my post: The likelihood is that this would just make the president, via the tool of executive orders, the Earmarker In Chief.

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  14. RW Rogers says:

    The Feds spend billions on highways, airports, and other infrastructure projects.

    And a host of other things, too. Maybe they ought to get out of the business of funding most of them and reduce the need for income to pay for them.

    Without earmarks, we’d basically have Federal bureaucrats deciding how to spend that money.

    They already do, James, and you of all people here should know that. It’s a bit odd to find those who argue earmarks are insignificant in the big scheme of things now arguing that disposing of them constitutes wholesale abandonment of congressional oversight to faceless bureaucrats

    Or that the president won’t start using that discretionary power as a club to persuade Members to vote for legislation that he favors.

    Oh, James, surely you aren’t arguing that is already done regularly?

    But there’s no guarantee whatsoever that this would happen.

    That would be their problem if it doesn’t.

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  15. steve says:

    “We have a choice between not terribly accountable politicians and completely unaccountable bureaucrats who will unerringly act to prolong the problems they’re supposed to solve.”

    Then just how did all of our roads get built, our dams, our whole infrastructure. Our rivers and harbors. They must be solving something.

    Steve

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  16. John Personna says:

    The President may put some former Catapillar guy in there, but we should have the tension again with the legislature independently setting budget.

    I argue that the legislature has a much clearer function is only “how much” and it isn’t confabulated with “picking winners” (to borrow a term).

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  17. Billy says:

    “Project selection, which is what earmarks do, are policy questions; issues of cost, design and performance are technical and suitable for administrative agency decisionmaking.”

    I disagree with this premise. Project selection, while a policy question, is not wholly divorced from issues implicating specific expertise, unless the sole incentive for making such decision is to bring the bacon home to a certain constituency.

    West Virginia has great infrastructure thanks almost entirely to Robert Byrd and the earmark system. Does it make sense, from a policy standpoint, to favor it over Pennsylvania, or North Carolina? Was doing so the highest and best use of the tax dollars from the other 49 states? Would a faceless bureaucrat have made the same decision?

    Would the market?

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  18. john personna says:

    It just struck me. James is normally such a “checks and balances” guy.

    Block allocation with oversight is the best way to do that.

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  19. john personna says:

    (Congress should not be able to designate weapon systems for the same reason.

    James, where are you on congressional design of weapons strategies?)

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  20. Dave Schuler says:

    Then just how did all of our roads get built, our dams, our whole infrastructure. Our rivers and harbors.

    The regular, messy, politcally-motivated, short-sighted Congressional appropriations process. Have any roads, dams, or other infrastructure elements been built because the civil bureaucracy authorized it? I don’t think so.

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  21. James Joyner says:

    James, where are you on congressional design of weapons strategies?

    The current system is reasonably close: Having the experts in the bureaucracy submit requests to Congress, which in turn actually allocates monies and designate which weapons to procure, how many of them to buy, and where to build them. There’s doubtless waste in the process but it’s mostly unavoidable.

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  22. Rock says:

    So called earmarks should be stand alone spending bills and not an attachment, addendum or rider to another bill. That way we could see all who actually votes on a bill to study bovine flatulence in Iowa.

    Five years ago a million bucks in earmark money was used build a very nice brick building here. It looks great. It now stands alone used as a bus stop for a local transit system. I’ve never seen more than three people waiting there for the shuttle bus. The only employee is a security guard who works eight hours and then locks the place up for the night. A Week or so ago the little used parking lot was used for a flea market event. Our money at work.

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  23. john personna says:

    The current system is reasonably close: Having the experts in the bureaucracy submit requests to Congress, which in turn actually allocates monies and designate which weapons to procure, how many of them to buy, and where to build them. There’s doubtless waste in the process but it’s mostly unavoidable.

    So you favor two levels of corruption? Congress should pay for what “bureaucracy submits” plus their own earmarks?

    Clever.

    (The theme “we got these weapons (or trucks, or helicopters) we didn’t want” also goes back decades.)

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  24. Juneau: says:

    w

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