Rand Paul, The Tea Party, And The Phony “War On Earmarks”

Rand Paul is taking some heat for remarks that may or may not indicate that he's backtracking on his previous vow not to seek earmark spending for Kentucky. Yes folks, the phony war on earmarks is back.

Newly elected Senator Rand Paul is taking some heat from the right, and derision from the left, for what some are taking to be backtracking on comments he made about earmarks during the campaign.  It all starts with a piece in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal profiling Paul and Roy Blunt, and this piece about Paul:

In a bigger shift from his campaign pledge to end earmarks, he tells me that they are a bad “symbol” of easy spending but that he will fight for Kentucky’s share of earmarks and federal pork, as long as it’s doled out transparently at the committee level and not parachuted in in the dead of night. “I will advocate for Kentucky’s interests,” he says.

This led Veronique de Rugy at National Review to wonder if Paul is “selling out” now that he’s won election even while acknowledging that focusing on “earmarks” does absolutely nothing to reduce spending, the size of government, or the National Debt:

Is he selling out already? I am fully aware that the issue of earmarks is a very symbolic one. Getting rid of earmarks won’t save us from the current debt explosion, nor is it likely to end the spending; it will just leave the decision in the hands of the agencies rather than selected lawmakers.

Very symbolic? I’d call the earmark debate entirely symbolic, and quite possibly a diversion from forcing politicians to think about real spending cuts. According to one statistic, earmarks account for about an infinitesimally small part of the actual federal spending.

Let’s take the Omnibus Spending Bill passed early last year as an example.

Out of the approximately $ 400 billion in spending that the bill authorized, only $ 8 billion constituted “earmarks” — that’s a mere 2% of the entire bill. For the Federal Budget as a whole, the number is close to 1 %. Eliminate earmarks and the Omnibus Bill would’ve been $ 392 Billion; and eliminating earmarks would have no real impact on a $ 3.6 trillion Federal Budget.

In an era of $ 13,000,000,000,000 national debt, and CBO projections of an additional $ 10,000,000,000,000 in debt over the next ten years, there’s something silly about arguing over such a trivial part of the Federal Budget.

So, why all the attention paid to such an insignificant part of the budget ? For one thing, I’ve got to believe that there’s no small degree of political opportunism going on here. Earmarking is easy to criticize because it seems like pork-barrel politics at it’s most petty level. It’s an easy way for a Congressmen or Senator to claim that they are “fighting government waste” and working to reduce spending without having to make any of the actual hard choices that cutting spending actually requires. For another, engaging in a phony war against “earmarking” that doesn’t actually reduce spending is politically popular, far more popular than cutting farm subsidies, corporate subsidies, defense spending, and entitlement spending are going to be. It’s easier. The fact that it doesn’t actually work ? Well, that’s just a technicality.

There’s another aspect of the earmarks debate that’s worth considering, and it has to do with the balance of power between the Legislative and Executive Branches. If  Congress wasn’t earmarking these appropriations, then it would be faceless bureaucrats in the Executive Branch who would be deciding which money went where. Viewed that way, one could say that earmarks are a weapon Congress is using to assert its authority over the Executive Branch.

Many people who insist that the GOP focus on earmarks argue that earmarking is a “gateway drug” to higher spending:

Yes, earmarks make up only a small percentage of overall government spending but $15.9 billion dollars is not exactly nothing. How are voters to believe that Republicans will do the significant amount of cutting we will need to do to avoid a full-on budgetary meltdown if they won’t agree to rein their selfish impulses in on one percent of the discretionary budget and far less than that of the whole budget?

It’s a fair argument, and it makes sense. Remember, though, if Congress weren’t earmarking the appropriations bills, then all of the decisions about where the money would go would be left to the Executive Branch. It’s fairly easy to see what would happen then. The allocation of money by the Executive Branch would become a bargaining tool by which the President would influence Congressmen and Senators to support legislation favored by the White House. Giving the White House power to decide where the money allocated to, say, the Transportation Department goes won’t reduce the budget of the Transportation Department, it will just make the Presidency more powerful. Personally, I don’t consider that a good thing.

I’m no fan of earmarking, or of the pork-barrel spending of which it is a subset, but if you’re really serious about cutting spending and stopping (and reversing) the growth of government, it’s time to start talking about the things that really matter. Like actually cutting spending. Fighting earmarks is the fiscal equivalent of swatting at gnats while being attacked by a swarm of Killer Bees.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Andre Kenji says:

    Rand Paul(That´s a poor caricacture of his father) sold out since the beggining.

  2. john personna says:

    Well Doug, it would be one thing if any of these new “fiscally sane” congress members were naming the big cuts. It’s another when they won’t name the big cuts, and won’t do the small ones either.

    No doubt they’ll look forward to “conversation” about it though.

  3. tom p says:

    The deficit is not going anywhere because fixing it is going to cost a number of somebodies an election.

  4. john personna says:

    tom, the Republicans are probably figuring a way they can do nothing, but run on deficit again in two years.

  5. DC Loser says:

    Well, you know, Obama is in charge in everything. It’s all his fault!

  6. Mr. Prosser says:

    I think earmarks are a target because the numbers are comprehensible. It’s easy to criticize the bridge to nowhere because the price can be imagined and the result is a tangible object. The huge numbers involved in the real spending are beyond most of our imaginations much like distances in outer space. I also notice that Murkowski will probably win in Alaska. She ran her write-in on the promise of doing what’s right for Alaska which, frankly, is bringing back the bacon. I also agree with you, Doug, earmarks are a power item for the legislative branch.

  7. mantis says:

    Considering how Republicans’ wave was propelled by the senior citizen vote and they campaigned, quite dishonestly, against Medicare cuts, we can safely assume the GOP won’t even think about touching Medicare or Social Security. The newly elected principled fiscal conservatives like Rand Paul have now embraced earmarks. Very few Republicans will consider cutting defense. So, what’s left? Tax cuts!

    After this election I truly believe that we Americans, as a people, are too goddamned stupid and don’t deserve the great nation the Constitution provided for us. We are doomed.

  8. Dodd says:

    Very symbolic? I’d call the earmark debate entirely symbolic, and quite possibly a diversion from forcing politicians to think about real spending cuts. According to one statistic, earmarks account for about an infinitesimally small part of the actual federal spending.

    And, just as with cutting Congressional pay, the relative size of the budget savings is entirely irrelevant. Symbols aren’t meaningless; they’re important in and of themselves.

    Whether that meaning is positive or negative is determined by how they follow through. If small cuts aren’t backed up by significant ones, they end up being a net negative. But as a means of laying the groundwork for — and demonstrating a commitment to — the tougher cuts, they matter a lot.

    The ‘symbolism’ we’ve been getting this first week from the House leadership has been pretty solid. But it’s a long while yet before we can judge it a plus or a minus, Doug. Unless you’ve already decided, based solely on previous performance, that it will necessarily end up being a negative. It’s reasonable to say that they have a lot of past dereliction to overcome, but it’s not reasonable to decide before they’ve even taken over the chamber that they won’t.

  9. Dodd,

    When it comes to the “earmarks” issue, we’re talking about something that is pure symbolism, something that would have absolutely no impact on overall spending. At least cutting Congressional pay would lead to a reduction in the Congressional operating budget, albeit an infinitesimally small one.

    Am I skeptical about these incoming Congressmen and Senators (not to mention the members who have been there for years), you bet I am. And when I see them playing the same pointless games that the GOP was during the Bush years, that only serves to reinforce my skepticism.

    Like I’ve said before, I’m prepared to be pleasantly surprised, but I’m not prepared to point at something that is essentially meaningless as a sign of progress. Not yet.

  10. Franklin says:

    The deficit is not going anywhere because fixing it is going to cost a number of somebodies an election.

    It just did.

  11. sam says:

    I especially like Rand’s position on the raising debt ceiling limit. He said he’ll vote against it…unless it looks his side will win.

  12. ponce says:

    Wanting to cut government spending that doesn’t benefit you personally or your state is a perfectly serviceable philosophy.

  13. john personna says:

    Wanting to cut government spending that doesn’t benefit you personally or your state is a perfectly serviceable philosophy.

    Though not terribly high on the scale of moral development.

  14. mantis says:

    Libertarians are by definition very low on Kohlberg’s scale. Kind of like animals that eat their young.

  15. mantis,

    Nonsense.

  16. mantis says:

    Nonsense.

    So you say, but you’re a libertarian. What else would you say? You live in a fantasy world.

  17. ponce says:

    “Nonsense.”

    Really?

    I’ve always considered “libertarian” just another word for “sociopath.”

    I remember libertarian/sociopath poster child Bryan Caplan gleefully stating he’d have no problem starving senior citizens to death if it meant he didn’t have to pay Social Security…

  18. mpw280 says:

    Maybe Doug should have waited until Kaminski released the transcripts where he says Rand is selling out. The full transcripts don’t seem to imply what Kaminski wants them to imply and says they imply. It appears that Rand wants to go to a benefits analysis of the project and give the project with the best benefit the money first and so on down the line. You might want to wander over here to get more info. http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/252920/re-rand-paul-already-selling-out-robert-costa

    mpw

  19. sam says:

    mpw280

    “It appears that Rand wants to go to a benefits analysis of the project and give the project with the best benefit the money first and so on down the line. ”

    Yeah, but isn’t that still earmarking? Regardless if this one has a better cost-benefit ratio than that one. It’s still an earmark. Besides that, I think you completely misunderstand the bits quoted at NRO. Dude, dude, that’s earmarking, plain and simple. I’m pretty sure you don’t understand what an earmark is. An earmark is federal funds allocated for a local project:

    In United States politics, an earmark is a legislative (especially congressional) provision that directs approved funds to be spent on specific projects…

    Earmarks can be found both in legislation (also called “Hard earmarks” or “Hardmarks”) and in the text of Congressional committee reports (also called “Soft earmarks” or “Softmarks”). Hard earmarks are binding and have the effect of law, while soft earmarks do not have the effect of law but by custom are acted on as if they were binding. Typically, a legislator seeks to insert earmarks that direct a specified amount of money to a particular organization or project in his/her home state or district. Earmarks are often considered synonymous with “pork barrel” legislation, although the two are not necessarily the same. [But for our discussion, the terms are interchangeable.] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earmark_(politics)

    Now, tell me how you understand this:

    Q: So if Roy Blunt calls you up, tells you, ‘hey, I want to get this bridge built in southern Missouri’?

    Mr. Paul: I think we can do it if I’m on the transportation committee, we discuss it and we find out his bridge is more important than the bridge in Louisville, or more important than the bridge in northern Kentucky. I think that’s the way legislating should occur. You work it out, you find out, and then you should say how much money do you have? Right now we just write a blank check and we just say, well, what do you want. I mean, nobody has any concept, they have no restraint. What you need is in the committee process to know that we have X billions in our budget this year, because that’s all the money we have. Instead they just say, ‘What do you want to spend?’ It’s all about what do you want instead of what do you have.

    He’s dissembling here. If the committee allocates X dollars definite to Blount’s bridge, somehow this is not an earmark because the dollar amount is definite.

  20. sam says:

    I should say that I have no problems with earmarking. I think the allocation of federal funds to local projects is just fine. To me, such things are in pursuit of the general welfare. Of course, if you’re going to build a bridge, I’d like some assurances that it’s going somewhere. And if the allocation proceeds via a cost-benefit analysis, that’s all to the good. But let’s not pretend we’re not earmarking.

  21. John Personna says:

    The real reason all these bridges are a scandal is that the federal fuel taxes were supposed to support the infrastructure, as a use-tax.

    But we allow people to say “give us cheap gas” and “give us bridges” even as they say “taxes take money that is MINE.”

    We are pathetic.

  22. André Kenji says:

    Rand Paul is just a phony version of his father.I prefer the original.

  23. Dodd says:

    When it comes to the “earmarks” issue, we’re talking about something that is pure symbolism, something that would have absolutely no impact on overall spending. At least cutting Congressional pay would lead to a reduction in the Congressional operating budget, albeit an infinitesimally small one.

    Ending the practice of earmarking pork for short term political is not symbolic. It’s an unambiguous demonstration of changed priorities.

    The solution to the spending side is not to cede the spending authority to the Executive Branch, to which Congress has already ceded far too much of its power to play the We Did Something But It’s The President’s Fault You Don’t Like How It Worked Out game. It’s retaining the authority where the Constitution vests it while getting rid of the practice of buying votes with pork. Step 1 won’t ever happen without Step 2.

  24. RW Rogers says:

    Doug, it is true that the amounts you mention are chump change in relation to overall spending by the federal government, but they are far from infinitesimal otherwise. For someone who professes a libertarian philosophy, you sound incredibly blasé, even supportive, of such expenditures. Almost all of the libertarians I know personally argue that the federal government has no business funding state or local projects of any kind.

    Dodd is right. What you deride as mere symbols do matter. What Dodd calls “an unambiguous demonstration of changed priorities” changes the atmosphere not only for so-called minor items but the bigger ticket items as well.

  25. sam says:

    Of course Dodd’s right, and symbolic gestures (which is what cutting Congressional pay and eliminating earmarks are) do count for a great deal. And this is why the all the hat and no intellectual cattle Republicans are going to find themselves petard-bound. What needs to be kept in mind is that those states that comprise the base of the Republican party are net importers of federal dollars (see, Red States Feed at Federal Trough, Blue States Supply the Feed). This fact will subtend the coming fandango in the Republican caucus re earmarks in particular and government spending in general. Sit back and watch the gyrations.

  26. sam says:

    Ah, I can hear the orchestra tuning up in the background:

    Mitch McConnell fights GOP earmark ban

    Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is maneuvering behind the scenes to defeat a conservative plan aimed at restricting earmarks, setting up a high-stakes showdown that pits the GOP leader and his “Old Bull” allies against Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and a new breed of conservative senators.

    In a series of one-on-one conversations with incoming and sitting senators, McConnell is encouraging his colleagues to keep an open mind and not to automatically side with DeMint, whose plan calls on Senate Republicans to unilaterally give up earmarks in the 112th Congress, according to several people familiar with the talks.

    While McConnell is not demanding that rank-and-file Republican senators vote against the earmark ban, he’s laying out his concerns that eliminating earmarks would effectively cede Congress’ spending authority to the White House while not making a real dent in the $1 trillion-plus budget deficit. And McConnell is signaling his concern about the awkward politics of the situation: even if the DeMint moratorium passes, Republican senators could push for earmarks, given that the plan is nonbinding and non-enforceable.