Archive for January 11th, 2018

This is depressing.

Republicans botched the repeal of Obamacare. They’ve already sold out (twice!) on the spending caps in the Budget Control Act, and they’re about to do it again.

And now they want to bring back earmarks.

In this interview with Neil Cavuto, I explain why this is a very troubling development.

One thing I didn’t mention in the interview is that earmarks are inherently corrupt. Indeed, there’s a near-universal four-step process that – in a just world – would result in politicians getting arrested (see 18 U.S. Code § 203) for bribery, graft, and conflicts of interest.

  1. An interest group decides it wants other people’s money and decides to use government as a middleman.
  2. The interest group hires lobbyists, most of whom are former members of Congress or former staff members.
  3. The interest group and the lobbyists direct campaign contributions to one or more politicians.
  4. In exchange for those contributions, one or more earmarks are inserted in a spending bill.

That’s a great deal for Washington insiders, but not so good for taxpayers or honest government.

And if you don’t believe me, read about the oleaginous behavior of Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Jim Moran.

Now let’s consider an argument in favor of earmarks. Writing for Bloomberg, Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University argues that the system needs a bit of grease to work better.

…think of earmarks as local benefits inserted into bills to buy more votes in Congress. …Recalcitrant representatives can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district. That eases gridlock…whether we like it or not, there is something inherently transactional about being governed.

As I stated in the interview, I don’t think this assertion is persuasive. Most legislation is bad for liberty, so I agree with America’s Founders that gridlock is good.

That being said, Tyler makes a couple of compelling arguments. First, he points out that we may need some pork to get good legislation through the process.

Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress. Gridlock today is not the friend of fiscal responsibility, coherent policy, or a free, well-functioning capitalist economy.

I agree with the first sentence and said the same thing in my talk with Neil. We will need congressional action to reform entitlements and save the country. And if that means bribing a few members to get votes, so be it.

However, I think his second sentence is too optimistic. Good reform is not very likely with Trump in the White House. It’s a judgement call, to be sure, but I believe gridlock will be a good thing for the next few years.

Second, Tyler acknowledges that politicians try to buy votes, but he suggests that earmarks are cheap compared to potential alternatives (such as new entitlements, presumably).

…virtually every member of Congress looks to support government spending that will boost his or her re-election prospects. It is often the case that directly targeted local spending — which may take the form of earmarks — buys support for a relatively low dollar price per vote. If earmarks are removed, representatives are still going to pursue votes, but the total amount of electorally motivated, wasteful government spending may be higher.

This is a potentially persuasive point, but I’ll be skeptical until I see some supporting evidence.

In a gridlock environment, I suspect enacting non-earmark spending is not that easy (though I admit an Obamacare-level budget buster every 10 years would completely wipe out in just one year the money that might be saved over several decades with an earmark ban).

In addition to what Tyler wrote, another pro-earmark argument is that there will always be a person who decides how money is spent. And I’ve had members of Congress tell me that they’d rather make those decisions that have a bunch of left-wing bureaucrats allocate money.

That’s a perfectly reasonable argument, but it doesn’t address my fundamental concern that the existence of earmarks will seduce members into supporting higher overall levels of spending.

Which brings me to my final point. I’m willing to cut a deal.

I’m willing to let politicians allocate 100 percent of spending with earmarks if they’ll agree to a comprehensive spending cap that complies with the Golden Rule and slowly but surely shrinks the overall burden of federal spending.

If the crowd in Washington is serious about the argument that earmarks are needed to grease the skids for desirable legislation, it’s time for them to put their votes where their mouths are.

Given the track records of most of the politicians who support earmarks, I’m not holding my breath.

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