Republican Sens. Bob Bennett (UT), Thad Cochran (MS), Susan Collins (ME), Jim Inhofe (OK), Dick Lugar (IN), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Richard Shelby (AL), and George Voinovich (OH) all just voted against an amendment in the Senate that would have banned Congressional earmarks. This is terrible public policy for their states, for their constituents, and for our country.
Harvard research shows that states that experience an increase in earmark spending suffer from decreases in corporate capital expenditures and employment. Earmarking also robs money from local government transportation priorities to pay for Senator’s vanity projects. And there is a strong correlation between high numbers of earmarks high total spending by Congress. As George Mason University Law School professor David Bernstein explains, earmarks are a key part of a broader system of corruption in Washington:
Let’s say Congressman X is an idealistic young Congressman. Some constituents in his rural district ask him to get federal funding for a new emergency room in a local hospital, because the nearest emergency room is 100 miles away. Congressman X is skeptical of earmarks, but this particular one both seems like a good idea and a way to help ensure his reelection–he won his first term with only 52% of the vote. He manages to slip the hospital funding into an appropriations bill.
Soon thereafter, Congressman X becomes aware of a new $5 billion initiative that is a complete and utter boondoggle, but will benefit the districts of several influential congressmen. He starts sending out press releases opposing the initiative, and threatens to a force a vote on an amendment removing the initiative from the bill to which it is attached.
The senior Congressmen who support the initiative schedule a meeting with Congressman X. Like mafia thugs, they tell the Congressman, “It would be a real shame if anything was to happen to your hospital funding–and any future funding for your district, for that matter.” The message is clear; if Congressman X wants any hope of bringing federal money into his district, he had better stop opposing wasteful spending supported by his colleagues. He drops his opposition to the $5 billion project, gets the hospital funding, is reelected easily, and never again shows any “spending hawk” tendencies. Soon, in fact, he is rather senior himself, and finds himself meeting with a junior Congressman, telling him “It would be a real shame if anything was to happen to your hospital funding–and any future funding for your district, for that matter.”
So, even though earmarks are a small percentage of the federal budget, they are a very important part of a broader system of corruption that leads to out-of-control federal spending.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post did not identify Sen. Lugar as a supporter of earmarks. All Republicans who voted to protect earmark corruption are now listed properly.