November 15, 2010
Are There Good Earmarks?

Atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass thinks Washington state received one.

Consider the coastal radar that will be installed next September on the central Washington coast.  Without earmarks this extraordinarily important device, one that will save lives and greatly enhance our lives, would not have happened.

A classic argument against earmarks is that all appropriations should go through the normal process, with budget requests from agencies vetted by congressional committees.  Sound good.  But for over a decade many of us tried to go this route in pushing for the coastal radar.  The case was compelling but some folks in the National Weather Service opposed it and letters from Congressmen and Senators fell on deaf ears.

Please note:  I am not endorsing — or rejecting — Mass's argument; I am simply presenting it for you to think about.  Without good estimates on lives saved, and a quantitative estimate on how this would enhance our lives, I can't even tell whether this is a good project that should have been funded in the regular way.

I would add that I am suspicious about it because our junior senator, Maria Cantwell, comes from the Green superstition wing of the Democratic party, and our senior senator, Patty Murray, comes from the "no rocket scientist" wing of the Democratic party.  I don't trust either senator's judgment, especially on scientific matters.

(I do agree entirely with Mass's thought that bureaucracies may not always understand local problems; in fact I consider that true, more or less by definition.)

I am presenting his argument because I think responsible citizens should look at arguments from both sides.  (For a similar reason, I think Mass should have explained why the National Weather Service did not want this radar.  Assuming he could do so, without offending some of his sponsors, that is.)

Cross posted at Jim Miller on Politics.

Posted by Jim Miller at November 15, 2010 03:28 PM | Email This
1. 1. I think all earmarks are fine in that they are each examples of congress appropriating money as it see fit rather than leaving it to the executive. That is a legitimate and actually more appropriate body to allocate tax dollars. It does not increase or decreate the amount of spending.
2. I am against any spending in legislation that was not given adequate time to be reviewed by the legislature.
3. I reject the idea that we should approve or disapprove government projects based on some calculation of how many lives could be saved. It should be judged on its consitutionality first and then if it passes that, it should be judged on whether it makes sense on other grounds. Without thinking too much, this particular project seems to not pass the consitutitonality test to me.

Posted by: Lysander on November 15, 2010 03:51 PM
2. Jim- I appreciate your balanced comments on this issue. I wondered the same thing after reading that passage on Mass's blog.

I disagree with Lysander that earmarks are examples of Congress appropriating money. In practice, individual representatives determine earmarks, not Congress as a body.

The one defense of earmarks is that they are a sort of slush fund for projects that don't pass the normal process for funding. Therefore earmarks will tend to be more politically popular locally than consistent with federal priorities. Arguably there is some value to having both the normal and earmark processes to make sure no good project falls through the cracks. But personally I'd rather say that, if a congressperson can't convince an agency to include a pet project, it doesn't deserve to be federally funded.

Posted by: Bruce on November 15, 2010 04:13 PM
3. Cliff Mass can provide the quantitative data you are looking for, and has done so at hearings in the past. You can even find the info using that Google contraption.

Earmarks serve a useful purpose, but like anything can be abused. Stopping the abuse is what you want, and where your efforts should be targeted.

But the pending battle over earmarks in appropriation bills has nothing to do with any principle and every thing to do with a fig leaf.

Posted by: MikeBoyScout on November 15, 2010 05:04 PM
4. Which Constitutional Congressional power were they exercising when they used taxpayer money to pay for that radar system?

Serious question - I've never really contemplated where they derive their authority to spend our money on this stuff. It's probably obvious, if so, sorry.

Posted by: Andrew Brown on November 15, 2010 05:08 PM
5. If Congress spent more time considering expenditures rather than naming special holidays or roads or how to best rebuild industries in the US, perhaps we wouldn't need earmarks because the normal appropriations process could handle them?

For the amount of time and energy spent on Obamacare, how many "earmarks" could have gone through the normal appropriations process?

Posted by: Shanghai Dan on November 15, 2010 06:39 PM
6. I worked for DoD for 25 years and retired from there. In the many programs I was part of we received our "share" of earmarks, almost all of them the "vetted" variety (that is, through the normal budget process and not "added at midnight before a vote"). Almost all of them were originated by a non-gummint supplier foisted on a program that didn't want them. While not big bucks, they diverted money that a program wanted to use for a higher priority.

The problem that arises from them is more a function of gummint spending rules than the "vetted" earmarks themselves (however, the midnite specials deserve their contemptuous scorn). An appropriation is a public law, so if Congress appropriates money for some purpose, it can only be used for that purpose. If it isn't spent withing five years or so, as many earmarks aren't because they were applied to (to coin a phrase) less than "shovel ready" projects, the money has to be returned unused and probably unusable. I'd give some examples but that would certainly "out" me and I wish to remain anonymous.

I hope the Repubicans can stop this silly stuff and spend time on something more important. Okay, I know that the most important time of every politico is getting reelected but you'd hope that every once in a while the taxpayers' interest would be served.

Posted by: BOB R on November 15, 2010 06:53 PM
7. I'm all for the "right" earmarks, but is this really a standard Mass would want to follow when it's "wrong?"

Probably not. I've got a Mass collection, and appreciate the work he does. I also think the radar is a pretty good idea.

I'm wary of all the true believers who want to turn science into a tool to force their ideology upon the rest of us, so far they're following the rule of law (protest and vote, "activate" whatever the hell that means), but deep down their want their ideas to be true, and many don't care who gets in the way. See the WTO.

Posted by: chrisn on November 15, 2010 06:55 PM
8. Maria Cantwell, comes from the Green superstition wing of the Democratic party, and our senior senator, Patty Murray, comes from the "no rocket scientist" wing of the Democratic party. I don't trust either senator's judgment, especially on scientific matters.

Well, if Jim Miller can make ad hominem attacks, it must mean the science is wrong, or at least beyond the capacity of mere women to understand.

Yeah, Jim, we all trust your judgement on scientific matters. Keep repeating that until you're sure.

(BTW, how did all of your posts on Senator Murray being "no rocket scientist" work in the recent election?)

Posted by: tensor on November 15, 2010 07:11 PM
9. I understand the 'need' for earmarks to direct the executive branch to spend money in particular places that Congress deems is necessary and that otherwise the executive wouldn't spend the money.

However, the problem is that the earmark process, completely legal under the constitution, has been warped into a way to get broader legislation passed that otherwise would not get passed.

As such, I like the idea of banning earmarks, but after passing appropriation bills, allowing a passing of a second bill that has the specific spending authorization related to the first appropriation bill. That could be the accumulation of the earmarks for that particular bill. Allow for congressional amendments to the second bill, but no way could you have Executive signing statements or line item vetos, because those earmarks, however atrocious they are, are granted to Congress by the Constitition to allow them to dictate the spending.

Posted by: Doug on November 15, 2010 07:59 PM
10. Doug,

I think rather than banning earmarks, it would be better to have a requirement that congress read bills before it can be voted on. Perhaps 1 day for every 20 pages should be required between when a bill is presented and voted on. Otherwise you end up with way too many complications about what is or is not an earmark or you end up giving way too much power to the executive.

Posted by: Lysander on November 15, 2010 08:26 PM
11. Earmarks are overrated. The president is able to add earmarks at will to a bill even if Congress isn't as this bill is worded now. This is more of a political ploy by the GOP and a symbolic gesture. On the other side, earmarks account for much more than 1-2% of the spending as the widely circulated storyline says. That does not account for all of the connected spending that is attached to other riders of a given bill, so the actual total is more like 10%, which is a chunk of change.

A weather radar is a good investment and kudos to Dr. Mass for helping secure it - Cantwell and Murray have done at least a few good things like this for WA. There could also be laws on earmarks, that allow them under certain conditions - by establishing a few regulations. However, I'd really like to see many regulations removed. That process would decrease spending that may close to make up for the removal of earmarks. The legislation is only a start - the GOP needs to follow through on cutting spending and decreasing the debt.

Posted by: KDS on November 15, 2010 08:34 PM
12. Weather Radar - It is my understanding that the best scientific place to put it isn't getting it, that politics played a bit of a part.

I also disagree about it being a good earmark. I am someone who will greatly profit from it's location with better weather forecasting, which brings me to this question: If a $7 million item has value, then why aren't the feds trying to get some of the cost from the people who will profit from it?

It bugs me with most of the Federal spending. Find ways to pay for things by taxing those who will benefit. If there is a wider range of benefit, then tax a wider range.

Posted by: Doug on November 15, 2010 09:49 PM
13. In october this country plunged 140 billion more in debt, 6 billion were the wars. That leaves:

134 billion to our childrens debt

Thanks to OBAMA. "One Big Ass Mistake America"

Posted by: gs on November 15, 2010 10:39 PM
14. Mass is brilliant, his weather blog is second to none. But I do not think he made the case for his radar toy. We could come up with any number of toys for university researchers that might ultimately save lives. The key, and the rub with earmarks is prioritization. I think we need earmark reform not to do away with all of them, but to get back to a reasonable debate system so that truly useful appropriations can get their due.

As it is now it is a mockery that has produced many an empty Jack Murtha Airport in the middle of nowhere.

Fiscal sanity. This is the simple message that won Rs the day on 11/2 and will keep them winning if they stick to task.

Posted by: Jeff B. on November 15, 2010 11:38 PM
15. The big problem with ear-marks. Today you have five of them, tomorrow you have five thousand.

STOP the madness and this crazy spending.

Posted by: Medic/Vet on November 16, 2010 06:55 AM
16. I just read a great post on earmarks that sums up my thoughts on it. It can be found here:

"If you want to cut spending, just cut spending. Don't get embroiled in an arcane debate about the procedures for specifying how appropriated money is to be spent."

"The way to eliminate pork is to get the federal government out of the infrastructure business, out of the economic development business and out of the research business. That would be a real change and that's why it won't happen while jokers like McConnell are in charge."

Posted by: Lysander on November 16, 2010 07:41 AM
17. Earmarks are 1%-2% of the Federal budget. Why is everyone so nuts about this?

Look at what we spend:

Defense: 23%
Social Security: 20%
Medicare/caid: 19%

Why so much noise about earmarks? Are Republicans willing to also push in public to lop off 5% each from defense, Social Security, and Medicare/caid?

Posted by: Joe Szilagyi on November 16, 2010 03:06 PM
18. Why the noise? Would have the government take over of healthcare happened if there was no Cornhusker Kickback, Louisiana Purchase, and the handful of states like PA and FL that got a deal on Medicare to get their Senator's vote?

The noise you and they are hearing are the sharpening of pitchforks and the lighting of torches.

Earmarks have their place and time, unfortunately they have been abused, and those who have abused them are still in the Senate.

Posted by: Doug on November 16, 2010 03:30 PM
19. It is bad policy to feel apathetic about "just one or two percent". That, my friends, is the real problem. How many tiny breaths will it take until a balloon pops? Yet each person who exhaled but one of those could always maintain that their's was a necessary breath and it was someone else's that caused the end.

Posted by: shaydo on November 16, 2010 10:11 PM
20. Joe,

For your list, which of those three are mentioned as explicit reasons for the Federal Government?

And what about the attempts by President Bush to save Social Security, by increasing the long-term returns of the SS Fund so that it moves from sub-inflation rates (which necessarily require an ever-increasing share of taxation)?

Posted by: Shanghai Dan on November 18, 2010 09:46 PM
21. The more tools (they are no toys) we give guys like Cliff Mass the better off we'll all be. In both safety and commerce. Earmarks and pork are a news cycle windmill to tilt at for campaign copywriters. Period. Most of the modern western US would still be a great desert without big government money and the tide of private money that follows its initiative. Everyone out here that drives along a highway next to a river or a farm sees that evidence. It evidently worked out ok that politicians who thought people really wanted balanced budgets instead of lighthouses failed to stop them from being built in the last century.

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