Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The curse of earmarks - a mere symptom of the problem

According to Wikipedia,
" earmark is a legislative (especially congressional) provision that directs approved funds to be spent on specific projects, or that directs specific exemptions from taxes or mandated fees....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.
Although widely abused in Congress, earmarks actually comprise a relatively small portion of the bloated federal government (reportedly less than 2 percent of the federal budget). It is because of this relative insignificance that politicians historically justify the practice.

In response to voter outrage over government spending, it has finally become fashionable in Republican political circles to eschew earmarks.

While I believe it is absolutely essential that we get the federal government and its budget under control -- and controlling earmarks is a part of that budgetary process -- I oppose earmarks for reasons that politicians and most other voters fail to acknowledge:

1 - The problem is not that federal tax money is spent. The problem is that the money is spent on State or local projects that should be State or locally driven and funded. The federal government has no Constitutional role in State or local affairs. In fact, the federal government is specifically prohibited from State and local matters by the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution.

2 - Earmarks are used to buy the loyalty of State and local politicians. Earmarks bribe them into accepting the federal "strings" attached to the funds. Consequently, State and local politicians cede precious sovereignty and power to the federal government. The closer the workings of government are to the people, the better control the people have over government. For this reason, the founders established clear and specific limits over the federal government and retained all other rights and responsibilities to the States and the people (9th and 10th Amendments).

3 - Because of all the "free" money pouring in from earmarks, State and local governments tend to build projects their constituents don't really need or projects that are much more extravagant than their constituents need. These projects are often of such a scale that the beneficiary States or communities can't even afford to operate and maintain them.

4 - Earmarks are often offered to members of Congress to entice them to vote for a bill they otherwise might not vote for. It is a corrupt soul who would sell his vote for an earmark, and there certainly seems to be no shortage of such corruption in the halls of Congress.

5 - There is no transparency or accountability in the system. Congressional members funnel hundreds of millions of dollars for pet projects without subjecting them to debate by their colleagues in the Congress, or to the scrutiny and oversight of the public. Congressmen use earmarks to secretly reward their biggest campaign contributors and even family members!

As I mentioned above, earmarks comprise less than 2 percent of the federal budget. Therefore, the Republican effort to curb earmarks is essentially a slight-of-hand to distract us from the real problem: an excessively intrusive, expensive, and wasteful federal government. I say the same for all "balanced-budget" proposals which in reality don't do anything to cut government.

In its early years, the federal government only needed about 4 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Now, it engorges itself on 20 percent of GDP (or 43 percent of each American's gross income) and wants more and more and more. While tackling earmarks seems a noble quest, it only addresses a minor symptom of the true problem. If the federal income tax were abolished altogether, the federal government would only need to shrink to its size of just over 10 years ago!

What we really need is politicians who will eliminate all federal agencies, legislation, rules, policies, and executive orders that exceed the authority delegated to the federal government by the people. I suspect that doing so would reduce the cost of the federal government back to around 4 percent of GDP (Dr. Walter Williams would allow a generous 10 percent). The States and our communities would need to increase their own tax revenue to pay for the services that currently and illegitimately are paid by the federal government. Think of all the good that States and communities could do if that money ceased to flow through the federal government and instead flowed from the people directly to their community and State governments. Think of the greater control the people would have over that flow (except in places like California where voters seem to have no desire to control their government whatsoever). Since that money is very likely to be spent more efficiently, States and communities would leave a lot more money in the pockets of the people. And, think of all the good that we, the people could do for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors if we could keep more of our personal GDP.

If we, the people fail to demand that of Congress, we have no standing to whine about our tax burden and our loss of individual liberty.

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