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Earmark debate another example of Republican fiscal fraudulence

By Adam Serwer

The battle between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and rival Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) over a plan to ban earmarks is another indication of lack of seriousness when it comes to many Republicans' approach to the budget deficit. McConnell is trying to prevent a DeMint-led effort to bar Republicans from seeking earmarks, because politicians like to talk about eliminating them more than actually doing so. For DeMint this is an opportunity to demonstrate his ideological purity and challenge McConnell's leadership.

Conservatives target earmarks because, in isolation, they're often hard to defend, and they're an easy symbol of Washington greed to rail against. The problem is that while they are frequent fodder for political rhetoric, they account for less than 1 percent of the federal budget. Republicans remain steadfastly committed to preserving the Bush tax cuts for the rich and they've been laughably demure on what federal programs they would actually cut. But they've managed to get into a heated argument among themselves over whether or not to cut a miniscule part of the federal budget.

This is a swamp of Republicans' own making. If they hadn't spent so much time convincing their base that earmarks are a huge part of government spending, they wouldn't be so fixated on them -- remember John McCain's bear paternity jokes? The problem for Republicans is that while talking about cutting spending is very popular, and Republicans would like to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare in order to fund more tax cuts for millionaires, actually cutting those programs wouldn't be very popular -- as Jonathan Chait writes, "while voters may oppose government in the abstract, they favor it in the particulars." So Republicans have to keep pretending that what they intend to cut is stuff no one really wants, which leads to things like the spectacle of Jim DeMint endorsing Rep. Paul Ryan's austerity agenda while at the same time claiming entitlement cuts are off the table.

This is the major contradiction of the Republicans' recent victory. As Jonathan Cohn pointed out, Republicans ran on promises not to cut government-run health care for senior citizens. It's hard for them to now explain that what they really want to do is cut government-run health care for senior citizens. So, earmarks.

But it's worth repeating that if Republicans actually caught their white whale and repealed the Affordable Care Act, they'd increase the deficit, if they extend the Bush tax cuts, they'll increase the deficit, and if they adopt Ryan's conservative dream budget they'll increase the deficit. Now they can't even agree to do their part to eliminate the less than 1 percent of the federal budget they all claim to want to get rid of. In case it isn't clear yet, Republicans don't care about the deficit. They care about redistributing income upward, Americans' concern about the deficit is mere pretext for adopting policies that do so.

The conflict between DeMint and McConnell is just another example of how often Republicans place grand ideological gestures before the responsibilities of governing, even the ones they've made the greatest show of committing to. As John Cole points out, there's probably no better example of this than Tea Party standard bearer Rand Paul, who has already reversed his campaign pledge on earmarks prior to even taking office as the senator from Kentucky.

Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes his own blog.

By Adam Serwer  | November 10, 2010; 10:50 AM ET
Categories:  House GOPers, Senate Republicans, economy  
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Next: Dem Senators privately griping to Joe Scarborough about Obama?


Can we get Adam to reply to any of the comments posted to his blog posts?

He writes that Republicans have "managed to get into a heated argument among themselves over whether or not to cut a miniscule part of the federal budget."

Please correct me if I am wrong, but getting rid of earmarks wouldn't reduce the budget. By most definitions, earmarks merely direct *already approved* funds to specific projects in order to give the congress more control versus the executive branch. (BTW - I am with McConnell on this. Just make sure the earmarking process is transparent and this isn't a problem.)

Posted by: sbj3 | November 10, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Don't worry, Adam, the REAL cuts are coming next year.

Posted by: clawrence12 | November 10, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Now they can't even agree to do their part to eliminate the less than 1 percent of the federal budget they all claim to want to get rid of.


Hmmmmm. Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding of the earmark system is that earmarks don't add to the cost of legislation, they just specify how portions of the funds allocated via legislation is spent.

For instance, if their is a highway bill that costs 500 million in total and Representative X gets an earmark for 1 million for road improvements in their district, the cost of the highway bill is NOT 501 million, but remains unchanged at 500 million.

So, if my understanding is indeed how it works, getting rid of earmarks wouldn't cut 1% of the budget at all. Indeed, it might make no difference economically.

What the anti-earmark people are (unwittingly?) pushing for is greater government control. They are saying, "The government knows best."

The irony of anti-government forces pushing for greater government control is just too tasty.

Posted by: nisleib | November 10, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

It is interesting to watch the progression of responses to the shellacking.

It is also important to remember that zebras can't change their stripes.

so Mr Serwer was always going to respond to the shellacking by publishing dis information. The progression now focuses on the nature of that disinformation.

First, did Rand Paul actually reverse a campaign pledge? I don't see how this is possible given the fact that he hasn't been sworn in or taken a vote.

What he did do is speak to the media which allows disinformation purveyors like Mr Serwer to mangle his meaning.

What this tells me is that Mr Serwer, at least, is will into the sour grapes stage of dealing with the defeat. He's basically saying: "Look, if taken out of context I can convince myself that Mr Paul lied and that makes me feel better because I can convince myself that I was right, he's not as good as his opponent."

It seems that cold comfort is still comfort, at least to Mr Serwer.

What did Mr Paul say?
"Mr. Paul: The earmarks are a really small percentage of the budget but I think they symbolize a lot of the waste and I think we shouldn’t do it. I tell people and told people throughout the primaries as well as the general election that I will advocate for Kentucky’s interests. There are money that will be spent in Kentucky. But I will advocate in the committee process. And I think that’s the way it should be done. Roads, highways, bridges, things that we need as far as infrastructure, let’s go through the committee process, find out, when was this bridge last repaired? How much of a problem is it? Are there fatalities on this road that’s not wide enough? Let’s use objective evidence to figure out, you know, where the money should be spent. But not put it on in the dead of night, have some clerk in your office stick it on because you’re powerful and you stick it on, and you attach your name to it."

Imagine, using objective evidence to decide what needs should take priority given finite resources. Wow, how radical an idea is that?

Perhaps Mr Serwer is unfamiliar with the budgeting process in real life, real business, real families.

Or maybe he's just eating today's ration of sour grapes.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | November 10, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Earmarks are often used to make a gov 't department spend money in a way they don't want, particularly in the area of defense. Powerful members on the Appropriations Committees and subcommittees do favors for contractors by inserting earmarks in return for campaign cash and perks like Duke Cunningham and the hookers. Or it is some small thing for the district that otherwise wouldn't get the needed support. But much more of the former than the latter.

This is a good post pointing out the irony. We will need lots more serious posts as the GOPers set about dismantling programs and redirecting gov't funding to favored friends and donors.

Posted by: Mimikatz | November 10, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

SBJ - You beat me to it!

At least we have the same understanding of the earmark process.

I really don't understand the hate of earmarks. I want my congresscritters working overtime to grab as many earmarks for my district as possible.

Then again, I'm originally from Alaska and Ted Stevens was kind of a family friend. So consider the source.

Posted by: nisleib | November 10, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse


Anyone at PL,

Sorry for the long OT comment, but a question. Can we get an article about a news item that I think will get NO play in the political media/blogosphere?

The topic is START.

There is an article in the AP today that suggests that Sen Kyl is trying to extort a deal out of the WH. The deal is that his block of GOP Senators will support ratification of the new START treaty IN EXCHANGE for funding for modernization of the nuclear stockpile.

"""Republican Jon Kyl has wielded the most sway in his party on the issue. He has been negotiating with the administration for months and pinning support for the treaty to a boost in funding to modernize the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons. A number of his Republican colleagues have said they will follow his lead on the treaty. His approval could push support beyond the 67 votes the administration needs for ratification, although many Republicans still are likely to oppose it."""

It's bad enough that Kyl and the GOP are trying to force the WH into making a back-room deal...

(um, don't Republicans HATE back-room deals? I seem to remember them decrying deal-making numerous times on HCR and FinReg).

...but the fact of the matter is that this posturing, and the possibility of the U.S. govt failing to ratify the treaty, have serious foreign policy implications. And trying to extort money out of the WH is a shameless attempt to win massive sums of money for the military industrial complex at the expense of foreign policy and even other priorities here at home.

Here is the article:

-US approval of arms pact with Russia looking shaky-

I hope to see something on this soon. I strongly suggest everyone inform themselves on this issue.


Posted by: Ethan2010 | November 10, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

This is only slightly off topic but relevant to the post.


"CNN obtained copies of letters LaHood sent to incoming Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin who have stated their opposition to rail projects already underway in their states. In the letters, LaHood said a rail link between Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati in Ohio, and a high-speed rail connection between Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are vital to economic growth in both regions.

Lahood wrote that he respects the power of governors to make decisions for their states, but, "There seems to be some confusion about how these high-speed rail dollars can be spent."

To Wisconsin's Gov.-elect Scott Walker, LaHood said that none of the funds can be used for roads or any other projects. He went on to say, "Consequently, unless you change your position, we plan to engage in an orderly transition to wind down Wisconsin's project so that we do not waste taxpayer's money." That letter was delivered on Monday.

A similar letter was sent to Gov.-elect John Kasich in Ohio on Tuesday. In that letter, LaHood mentions the thousands of jobs that would be created with the construction of a rail link between the state's largest cities.

LaHood said he was aware that Kasich had asked President Barack Obama if $400 million dollars from the federal government intended to fund the passenger rail project could instead be used for road construction and freight lines. LaHood wrote, "I wanted to let you know that none of those funds can be used for anything other than our High-Speed Rail Program," and he signaled his intention to take the money back if the project doesn't move forward."

Posted by: lmsinca | November 10, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

"just another example of how often Republicans place grand ideological gestures before the responsibilities of governing"

Ain't it the truth.

Why do they hate governing the country they supposedly love? Why do they reduce managing the complex issues the country faces to something akin to teenage popularity contest dramatics?

Great article, thanks Adam.

Posted by: Ethan2010 | November 10, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

"So has run the tale from earliest days. As [a] civilization waxes to its height, the power for Righteousness and for Integrity of character fails amid luxrious living [greed]. The seeds of selfish indulgence are sown, which in time reap a harvest of disaster [and ruin], and a nation falls." Mary Gray

For the sake of the Health and Soul of the nation, I hope that the Democratic Party will continue to fight with Joy, Courage, Faith, Hope and confidence. The dark ones want you to exist in a state of anger and hopelessness. So let your armour be Joy and Confidence that truth and justice, always wins out in the end! They must also do a better job at countering the lies with the truth!

The GOP Party frequently Invokes the name of God but Acts Un-Godly. The Democratic Party rarely invokes the name of God yet Acts Godly...

It was Death Panels, and a cloud of fear that surrounded the Health Care issue that skewed voters' minds and hearts -- The dark ones love to create an atmosphere of fear, for they cannot thrive or survive long in an atmosphere of love and harmony.

America, we must begin to take our country back from the Money Changers -- time to get off the "yellow-brick road" because we have been on one since the Regan era. Do you Realize that every time corporations and smaller businesses get tax breaks --, taxes rise locally and at state levels. The cold-hearted fact is that Everyday, average Americans shoulder the tax burden in this country, due to tax loopholes, tax cuts and tax breaks for wealthy Americans and Corporations who do not need it. Why in the world would Wealthy Americans need more tax breaks when they pay very little taxes anyway, they need to pay their fair share and take the burden off those who can least afford it. These tax-cuts will cost the country $700 Billion, twice the cost of the Healthcare bill. Ironically, GOP hate to extend unemployment benefits to Americans who desperately need them, while violently fighting to extend tax cuts for the wealthy, who do not need them.

The Party of No's mantra: cut, cut, and more cuts for the middleclass and poor and extend helping hand to the military machine and the wealth merchants. Have we lost our common sense: to create jobs, one must invest in America, her infa-structure, technology and innovations, and most importantly -- her children, through proper education, but Party of No only wants to invest in the rich and well connected.

Think about it, if we had Universal Healthhcare Reform, premiums would be a LOT LESS for everyone -- but that would be too much like doing the right thing -- such as being our Brothers' keeper and treating your neighbor as you would want to be treated yourself!

Posted by: wdsoulplane | November 10, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Isn't LaHood a Republican? Perhaps that's why he's so good at playing hardball. . .

Posted by: Michigoose | November 10, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

@Ethan: Why do they hate governing the country they supposedly love? Why do they reduce managing the complex issues the country faces to something akin to teenage popularity contest dramatics?

For starters, they're not very good at it.

Posted by: cao091402 | November 10, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

The railroad in Ohio is a deeply stupid idea. Kasich has already said that it won't be built. He asked if the funds could be applied to, you know, like, um actual needs, but nooo, the feds want what they want. Period.

My expectation is that Kasich will return the money unspent. He'll take the same kind of heat from the misinformed that Christie took when he canceled the tunnel.

If more states simply didn't take federal money, the tenth amendment would look a lot more important. That would be a good thing.

Here's an example: Arizona refused to go along with Medicaid for years. The state government wanted no part of the program as the Feds mandated it. They held out, and got a different system.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | November 10, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Rand Paul NEVER reversed himself on earmarks. Not only is he cosponsoring Jim DeMint's motion to ban them in the caucus, he has pledged to not take them himself. He said to the WSJ what he said on the campaign trail (including in the Paducah debate if you actually want to do some journalism and double check this) and the WSJ SAID he was flipping. I conclude that the WSJ LIKES earmarks and wants to undermine support for Rand Paul. Here is the transcript of the part of the interview the WSJ misstated:

Posted by: sailingaway1 | November 10, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

All, it looks like some Dem Senators are privately complaining to, of all people, Joe Scarborough about Prez Obama:

Posted by: Greg Sargent | November 10, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse


I have no problem with the individual states refusing federal dollars, it's their choice. Have you ever worked in local, city level politics? I have and very often we receive money through taxes or portions of re-development funds that legally cannot be spent on other needs. It's something that a lot of voters do not understand. Why are we closing a fire station or laying off fire fighters at the same time we're building a new strip center we don't need? The money is not transferable from one project to another. I assume that is what LaHood was indicating, the money if for high speed rail, nothing else.

Posted by: lmsinca | November 10, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

"For starters, they're not very good at it."

It's hard to tell. They don't try. They don't even PRETEND to try.

Posted by: Ethan2010 | November 10, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

@nisleib: Earmarks are only a problem when good money is devoted to silly projects or there is corruption. This rarely occurs now (due to rule changes) but it used to: "Earmarks have figured in several scandals over the past decade as lawmakers were found to have directed funds to businesses that showered them with gifts."

But: "The process of earmarking has been substantially reformed since the beginning of the 110th Congress. Members of Congress must post all their requests on their websites and they must sign a certification letter (which are then put online) indicating that neither they nor their spouse has financial interest in the earmark request."

Earmarks have their place.

Posted by: sbj3 | November 10, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Of interest (via hotair):

"The Senator [Inhofe]... didn’t disagree that earmarks have become a cesspool of abuse, but disputed that the moratorium would change anything except authorship. Inhofe plans to introduce a bill on Monday when the Senate reconvenes that will attempt to stop the abuses, and promises to discuss those provisions further once the bill gets onto the floor."

Posted by: sbj3 | November 10, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Yes, I understand the limitations. We face the same concept with donations to hospitals. The stipulations about use must be taken seriously.

The railroad was a big issue for many in Ohio. It was widely derided as the slow train to nowhere. I don't mind rail and I take it often when I can. But the problem with this project is that the feds would fund the building but the citizens would have to fund the operation. We just don't have the millions it takes to operate a railroad almost no one will use.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | November 10, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

The liberals are trying to smear the Republicans for what they might do - and they haven't even taken office yet.

This is like a girlfriend who screams at you for what you MIGHT do - before you even go out to a bar.

DUMP HER - JUST DUMP HER - You don't need this kind of aggravation in your life.


Posted by: OrangeForces | November 10, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Adam Sewer recognizes that if Republicans act like conservatives, they will win. So here he is playing his part to push the narrative that Republicans haven't changed. That it's just going to be more of the same.

Mister Sewer and his party got shellacked and the American people sent a clear message that enough is enough.

Of course, if Mister Sewer is right and Republicans don't address the deficit and don't put a stop to the out of control spending by the administration, they will be voted right back out of power.

It's in Mister Sewer's interests to convince people that Republicans don't care about the things they claim to because Mister Sewer knows Republican IDEAS put into ACTION will win elections.

Posted by: BoiledFrog | November 10, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Hey Ethan, a simple question: how could that be a back room deal if YOU know about it?

and what's so wrong about making the offer anyway? Aren't you guys all about bi partisanship now that you're losers?

Posted by: skipsailing28 | November 10, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse


I agree if no one will use it why spend the money. Either find a better rail project or put it back in the treasury AFAIC.

Posted by: lmsinca | November 10, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

skipsailing28 - Ethan reads the "alternative media", you see.

To quote Cosmo Kramer - "That's where you hear the truth!"

Posted by: BoiledFrog | November 10, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I remember Republicans complaining about not-so-secret, secret backroom deals during the health care debate.

Anyway, it seems that we have reached a consensus here that talking about cutting earmarks is a waste of time because doing so either:
1) Doesn't actually reduce spending
2) Saves 1%
3) Are a good thing.

I also think those defending Rand Paul are being a little too harsh on those calling him out. Earmarks appear to mean different things to different people and if you think an earmark is money targeted specifically for a state/district I think you would see Rand's comments as being a shift in positions. Of course, that's not what Rand Paul meant, but politicians are rarely specific when ranting against things like earmarks. They are purposefully vague to protect themselves when someone criticizes them like we have seen here.

That said, why has cutting earmarks been made into such a big deal, it's borderline dishonest.

Posted by: ashotinthedark | November 10, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

OK, so the deal that Ethan is undies in a wad about is a trade of approval of the new START treaty for an upgrade to our nuclear arsenal.

I don't see this as anywhere near as nefarious as trading a vote on an unpopular Federal take over of the healthcare industry for an exemption from Medicaid expenses for the residents of a specific state.

Not all bargains are bad, and as the discussion of earmarks make clear different folks apply different meanings.

What's so "backroom" about this anyway? My guess is that Ethan is simply engaged in a pavlovian response. he hears something about a conservative in congress, assumes that something nefarious is afoot, and begins to salivate copiously.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | November 10, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

It is true that earmark is directing money from allocated budget to other area favored by Congressional members which the agencies must fund it whether it wants to or not. This earmark ban does not cut spending per se. The way I see it, Congress should vote on the budget and let the executive branch carry it out but in practice the Congress micromanage it hence the earmark.

Randy Paul contradicted himself but has mentioned the transparency process which the members must justify it or not and the Committee must vote on it instead of the usual backroom deals.

Posted by: beeker25 | November 10, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Don't worry, Adam, the REAL cuts are coming next year.

Posted by: clawrence12
They have not defined what will be cut instead they lead you on with vague talking points instead the real beefy stuff.

Posted by: beeker25 | November 10, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Another issue for the Republicans is that earmarks increased 10-fold after the Republicans took over Congress in 1994. That is, they have been the major abusers of earmarks.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | November 10, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Those who practice reckless spending, whether Republicans or Democrats, need to be booted out. Minimizing the earmarks(29 Billion in 2006) just shows how out of touch some people still are.

Posted by: justamaz | November 10, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Lots of interesting comments about the impact of earmarks, primarily by supporters of the 'Republican' position.

I hate, then, to point out that the elected Republicans, skilled legislators all, are presenting earmarks as a means to controlling spending (which they are not), and cannot even agree whether to do it. And this is an item that has been a major talking point of Republicans for years now.

So, can you please enlighten me: are Republicans (better yet Republicans' supporters) stupid or what?

Posted by: AMviennaVA | November 10, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

The magnitude of the spending is not what is important about earmarks, it is that they allow crooks like Maxine Waters, Charlie Rangel, or John Murtha to throw around billions of dollars of taxpayer money on their individual say so. Giving individual member-crooks this ability is a huge part of the problem. We need smaller government so that thieves like these cannot steal as much. Getting rid of earmarks is a good start.

Posted by: RecriminyCricket | November 10, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

RecriminyCricket @ November 10, 2010 5:26 PM wrote "The magnitude of the spending is not what is important about earmarks, it is that they allow crooks like Maxine Waters, Charlie Rangel, or John Murtha to throw around billions of dollars of taxpayer money on their individual say so. Giving individual member-crooks this ability is a huge part of the problem. We need smaller government so that thieves like these cannot steal as much. Getting rid of earmarks is a good start."

The answer to my last question is obviously YES:

RecriminyCricket has conveniently ignored the fact that earmarks increased 10-fold when the Republicans controlled Congress. I wonder shy he considers the other party to be the crooks!

Posted by: AMviennaVA | November 11, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Beside the less than one percent issue, the other truth about earmarks that anyone looking to ban them won't admit is that banning them won’t save any money. It's all a smokescreen. -

Posted by: DJOURNO | November 11, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Taxpayers for Common Sense is an independent and non-partisan voice for taxpayers working to increase transparency and expose and eliminate wasteful and corrupt subsidies, earmarks, and corporate welfare. Here are their proposals on Earmark reform:

From the last sentence, "Simply banning earmarks could easily drive Congressional attempts to influence agency spending further out of the public view. The responsible approach will be to create systems to allocate our precious taxpayer dollars transparently to the highest priority, most meritorious projects in the national interest".

Keeping earmarks as transparent as possible is the best way to curtails corruption and wasteful spending, not banning them.

Posted by: ehong | November 11, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

Pundit: Earmarks are a tiny part of the budget. Only $10 billion.
Congressman: Yeah, I'll just take a tiny $20 million for my friends and myself.

- -
Eliminating Earmarks at Cato@Liberty
[edited]: Earmarks are not a huge part of the federal budget, but we should end them anyway. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) calls them a “gateway drug to federal spending addiction,” which is a folksy way of talking about political “log-rolling.” Former Congressman Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) has seen it first-hand. He explains how House and Senate leaders use earmarks to buy votes on legislation they want passed.

(See the 4 min video)

If earmarks go away as a tool for wheeling-and-dealing in Congress, members and senators will be less likely to sell out the country as a whole with bloated spending bills and Rube-Goldberg regulatory projects for the benefit of some local interest or campaign contributor.

Posted by: Andrew_M_Garland | November 12, 2010 7:48 PM | Report abuse

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