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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 12/20/2010

Earmarks and executive power

By Ezra Klein

I'm against earmarks. But I'm against earmarks because I'm a technocrat who doesn't like offering lobbyists more entry points to the political process and who doesn't think congresspeople tend to make great decisions about infrastructure spending.

But the people who are more commonly associated with the fight against earmarks both hate this White House and want to see more power devolved to the states and to political actors who are directly accountable to the American people. Which is what makes this fight so weird. If you get rid of earmarks, you don't get rid of the money that gets spent on earmarks. It's just that the agencies, rather than the Congress, get to decide where that money goes. That is to say, unelected bureaucrats make the decisions that elected representatives had been making. Power centralizes in Washington, D.C. Local concerns don't echo so loudly. The executive branch becomes stronger.

I'm fine with all that, but I'm also not being invited to speak at any tea party rallies. The earmarks process is very much the sort of thing the Founders had in mind when they created a political system based around local representation. And yet they're being done away with by the same people who think the political system needs to look more like what the Founders envisioned.

Ultimately, none of this will matter, as Republicans will probably return to earmarking within the next few years, just as they did in the ’90s. But it's still odd.

By Ezra Klein  | December 20, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
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Jonathan Swift once noted that you cannot reason a man out that which he was not reasoned into.

Ezra, stop expecting to find reason where there is none.

Posted by: tomcammarata | December 20, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse


Your dishonest post earlier today about how earmarks funded the human genome project provide a good example of why earmarks are so wasteful. Earmarks did not fund the human genome project. Competitive grants from NIH and DOE did. Labs from around the world competed to sequence certain segments of the genome. Experts from NIH decided which labs were qualified to do the work and paid out enough money to get it done. Imagine instead if a few influential congressman earmarked the money for some college lab in their home state that did not have the time or expertise to do the job right. In the end, a private business saw the profit potential of patenting sequences and stepped in to finish the project at a reduced price and in less time.

So the moral of the story is: Bureaucrats are better than congressmen in making specific spending decisions, and private enterprises are better than bureaucrats in spending money effectively.

Posted by: cummije5 | December 20, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

"armarks did not fund the human genome project. Competitive grants from NIH and DOE did"

yep. that's it.

Posted by: newagent99 | December 20, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

The founders intended for the federal government to be very limited in scope and certainly never envisioned decisions about local construction projects (most earmarks) being made at the federal level - either by congress or an, at the time, unimagined bureaucracy.
You are doing the founders an injustice by trying to blame them for earmarks.

Posted by: ckessler55943 | December 20, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

What's wrong with technocrats making decisions?

If States want to fund projects they should raise their own taxes. Republicans are using the earmarks process to rob the Blue States blind.

Posted by: tchanta | December 20, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Unelected officials have no good reason to spend the people's money on useless and inefficient projects designs to garner campaign contributions. No election, no motive.

Posted by: andrew23boyle | December 20, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Ezra, don't confuse these right-wing wackos with logic, reason or information. You're liable to make them more angry still.

Posted by: jimsteinberg1 | December 20, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

It's true that if you have a bill which spends, say, 500 billion dollars and you simply deleted all the earmarks, then the bill would still spend 500 billion dollars. However, if there was no such thing as earmarks, the bill wouldn't appropriate as much money in the first place. So the total cost of the bill would actually be less.

That's the key point no one is addressing.

Posted by: KeshavSrinivasan | December 20, 2010 7:11 PM | Report abuse

If you cut off excess funds to those agencies, then there won't be any decision to make about earmarks.

And it would be a good idea to eliminate quite a few wasteful and non-essential agencies, anyway.

A two-fer.

Posted by: janet8 | December 20, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

Most Democrats think that Obama is a tea bagger,in regurds to his policies.Obama is so for right that as a Democrats I cant see myself ever voting he him again.I will either vote republican or not at all for president in 2012.I seen enough reaching across the isle.Now I need to see a Democrat turn our economy around and Obama cant.In two years he still have produced any jobs.Obama great accomplment has been to extind unemployment benefits.Obama is not ready to lead this country.

Posted by: apez54 | December 20, 2010 9:04 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you are in left field when it comes to earmarks. In fact, you are just in left field all the time.

Posted by: annnort | December 20, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

In a bona fide panel-review process, outside experts rate proposals, not government functionaries. There are controls to prevent conflict of interest. In many cases, the judging is "blind" and panelists do not know whose peoposals they are ranking. Earmarks undermine the integrity of the competitive grant process.

Posted by: MikeLicht | December 20, 2010 10:44 PM | Report abuse

The interesting thing is that much, perhaps most, of this money gets parceled out through block grants, which can be used on almost anything, and often get spent as pork, only pork doled out on the state, county, or city level. Mayors and governors like this a lot, obviously. And because many states have much less robust oversight and attention than the feds, I think this probably leads to more corruption and shadiness than is generally acknowledged.

Block grants are one of those areas of the federal/local budget nexus that I don't think gets enough attention. They often carry a lot of theoretical regulations on how they must be spent - HUD block grants, for instance, must be used to "affirmatively further fair housing," whatever that means. But those regulations are not often well-monitored or enforced, making the block grants much closer to being revenue sharing between the feds and state and local governments.

Not sure exactly where I'm going with all this, but I mainly think its something to which more attention should be paid.

Posted by: brennangriffin | December 21, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

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