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OPINION

Another Victory for Fiscal Responsibility: The Death of Earmarks

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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I wrote a few days ago that advocates of smaller government have won a very significant victory over the past five years, as measured by the fact that there’s been zero growth in overall federal spending.

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And because the private economy has grown while the federal budget has been flat, this means that the burden of government spending – measured as a share of GDP – has declined.

This doesn’t mean our fiscal problems are solved. Indeed, the long-run numbers are still horrible and we desperately need genuine entitlement reform to avoid becoming a failed European-style welfare state.

But a long journey begins with a first step and the spending freeze over the past five years is worth celebrating.

And let’s also celebrate the fact that members of Congress no longer have carte blanche, generally using “appropriations” legislation, to specifically allocate spending for campaign contributors and other favored constituencies. Such spending allocations, known as “earmarks,” have been banned ever since the GOP took the House in 2010.

That makes me happy. As I wrote after that election, earmarks facilitate bad policy.

…earmarks are the proverbial apple in the congressional Garden of Eden. Members who otherwise might want to defend taxpayers are lured into becoming part of the problem. …earmarks [are] a “gateway drug” that “seduces members into treating the federal budget as a good thing that can be milked for home-state/district projects.” …they finance a racket featuring big payoffs to special interests, who give big fees to lobbyists (often former staffers and Members), who give big contributions to politicians. Everyone wins…except taxpayers.

You’ll notice, though, that I didn’t really offer any supporting evidence four years ago.

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So it’s time to rectify that oversight. The easy evidence to cite is that the federal budget hasn’t grown over the past five years, but there are several reasons for that spending freeze.

While I think the earmark ban deserves some of the credit, let me share a couple of anecdotes that also show why it was good to end this odious version of pork-barrel spending.

Here are some excerpts from a Northern Virginia news report about the looming retirement of a member of the Appropriations Committee.

U.S. Rep. Jim Moran departs Congress unrepentant on the need for those much-maligned targeted budget items known as earmarks. Moran – who once famously, if jokingly, promised to “earmark the shit out of” the federal budget if Democrats regained control in Congress – told the annual meeting of the Inter-Service Club Council of Arlington that the spending measures that used to be inserted at the behest of individual members of Congress should be brought back.

You may be wondering why this is newsworthy. After all, it’s hardly a shock that a big spender likes earmarks.

But it’s this next excerpt that makes the key point.

Why is he leaving? At the luncheon, Moran expanded on earlier frustrations. “Congress as an institution is dysfunctional,” he said. “Life’s too short to be part of an institution that only produces frustration.” Things were different when Moran first was elected to Congress in the early 1990s.

In other words, Cong. Moran got frustrated and decided to quit (at least in part) because he no longer had the ability to play favors and raise campaign cash by doling out earmarks.

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Gee, it’s almost enough to make you cry with sympathy. I’m sure taxpayers are very sad that Congressman Moran won’t be prowling the halls of Congress any longer.

And it’s a double tragedy because he won’t have as much value as a lobbyist since he can’t finagle earmarks from his former colleagues. Oh, the humanity!

And keep your hankie ready, because our next story also is a tear-jerker. It’s from before the election and it’s about outgoing Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and his refusal to share his stash of campaign cash with fellow Democrats.

Despite direct appeals from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other top Democrats, Harkin has refused to transfer money from his $2.4 million campaign account to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to sources and campaign finance records.

So why did Harkin decide to hoard his campaign cash, even though he was retiring from politics?

Because the poor fellow wasn’t allowed to subsidize his own ego with a taxpayer-funded earmark and had to use money from his contributors instead.

…the retiring Iowa senator has informed party leaders that he plans to use the campaign funds for a charitable contribution to an entity that bears his name: The Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement at Drake University in Des Moines, according to sources close to discussions with the senator. …the ban on congressional earmarks…has prevented him — a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee — from steering money to Drake University, said Democratic sources. Finding a home for his official papers has been a priority for Harkin, who has served in the Senate for three decades after 10 years in the House.

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Gosh, no wonder Harry Reid wants to bring back earmarks. If politicians can steal from taxpayers, they’ll have more money available to win elections!

Which is another reason why the earmark ban should be preserved.

P.S. Want another argument against earmarks? Well, how about the fact that reporters at the Washington Post think President Obama would have been able to push through more gun control if he could have used earmarks as bribes.

P.P.S. I want to switch topics and close by giving readers a riddle.

What would happen if you scrambled the genes of George W. Bush and David Cameron (the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) and produced two new people, sort of like Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins?

The answer is that you’d get Calvin Coolidge and Richard Nixon.

Allow me to elaborate. I’ve previously pointed out that George W. Bush was a reckless big spender, but at least he was somewhat consistent in advocating lower taxes.

David Cameron is the opposite. I’ve groused about his disturbing affinity for tax hikes, but he’s been much better on spending than I thought he would be.

And he’s about to get even better according to Allister Heath of the U.K.-basedTelegraph.

…this government is a free marketeer’s dream. It believes in cutting spending as a share of GDP much more severely than any previous government had dreamed of. On that metric, it is more Thatcherite than Thatcher, more Reaganite than Reagan. Public spending is expected to fall to 35.2pc of GDP by 2019-20, the lowest level in at least 80 years. …When looking just at the Government’s consumption of goods and services, the state’s relative size will fall to levels last seen in 1938, according to a historical Bank of England dataset. …the aspiration is revolutionary.

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Considering that government spending in the United Kingdom was consuming more than 48 percent of GDP as recently as 2009, it truly would be a dream if the burden of the public sector dropped to “only” 35 percent of economic output.

That surely would earn the U.K. a spot on my list of nations that have complied with Mitchell’s Golden Rule for multi-year periods.

Returning to my riddle, Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger supposedly had the same genetic stock in Twins, but one of them somehow got the bad genes and the other one got the good genes.

So I’m speculating that the genes of Bush and Cameron, scrambled together, would produce one good politician who believes in lower spending and lower tax (i.e., Coolidge) and one bad politician who supports higher taxes and bigger government (i.e., Nixon).

P.P.P.S. Here are my most recent numbers showing which modern Presidents were the most frugal and most profligate.

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