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Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu contends that eliminating earmarks, or the process of federal spending targeted to a specific agency and/or area of the country inserted at the request of a Member of Congress to spending bills not recommended by the president, would give the executive branch all of the power of spending designated to the Congress (and is not shy about promoting this view). This view also to some degree Republican Rep. Rodney Alexander supported although he now is on the record as opposing them (with reluctance), and present lobbyist but former Rep. Bob Livingston has said the same.
Couching the argument in terms of constitutional powers makes for a good argument, but sloppily reasons that the only alternative to having Congress have no input in spending decisions is to have earmarks. This thinking is decidedly uninformed and disingenuous. At least two alternative approaches commend themselves for Congressional input.
Recall that one kind of earmark essentially asks that federal taxpayers foot the bill for a purpose that benefits only a geographically narrowly-defined range of individuals that, as a concept, to some degree runs afoul of the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause just as the Democrats’ health care provisions changes do. Others of them reflect agencies trying to make end runs around the White House to rectify what they consider unsatisfactory budgetary outcomes. This is what makes earmarks controversial in the first place and why they are thrown in all together into giant spending bills, to facilitate logrolling. That is, Members count on each other to vote for everybody else’s earmarks so everybody gets a piece of the action.
So the solution is to require that any line-item amendments to a presidential budget, either in insertion or removal or earmarks, be subject to a separate vote during floor debate and not be dealt with as a package at the committee level. Then, instead of everybody rubbing each other’s backs, each project will have to stand on its own merits. The time this will take and the publicity from the exposure will ensure few and only very worthy projects that have at least some national purpose will get added. The particularly would happen with the more local kinds of earmarks, where every Member who votes for a use of their constituents’ funds for another’s state or district would have to defend that vote.
As for projects that really only benefit specific areas of the country, if Congress wishes to provide more discretion to state and local governments in the use of federal money, there already exists an entire, if inefficient, grant structure replete with fairly unrestricted block grants. It can shovel more money to these, allowing states and local jurisdictions to apply on behalf of more projects. The earmark process as it has existed only subverts this and makes it work even more poorly.
These are extremely workable avenues by which Congress may impose its will on the spending choices of the federal government. To assert as Landrieu does that earmarks are the only method by which Congress may do so is a red herring designed to obscure rather than to clarify the debate, besides exhibiting a lack of critical thinking skills important to have in our policy-makers.