Friday, February 15, 2008

Theory of Earmarks, With Applications

A certain amount howling is occurring over the appointment of Republican Jo Bonner to the House Appropriations Committee. Bonner's philosophy:
One of my many goals in Congress is to ensure the people of south Alabama get a significant return on their investment in the federal government (taxes). I am here to offer assistance in helping — where appropriate — to return to the people of the First District the tax dollars they send to Washington.
I have a hard time faulting this logic. A major function of a representative is indeed to secure appropriations for one's district. The "return on investment" argument is interesting--and problemmatic: Unlike some other forms of "investment," appropriations from tax revenues are a genuinely zero-sum game. For every district that generates a return, there has to be counterbalancing districts that incur a loss. But that's just politics, a field not known for its positive-sum commity.

I also really can't get too exercised about part of the philosophy behind earmarks. While it's usually a good idea to do block appropriations and let experts in the various departments allocate the funds, there are always going to be cases where a district needs something special that a bureaucrat wouldn't allocate. In those cases, a representative needs the ability to force the appropriation.

Where things go off the rails is with the practice of putting earmarks in without voting on them, with no transparency. As such, the transparency reforms are very welcome. The thing that's still missing is a decent mechanism for voting earmarks up or down. The fact that such a process will be time-consuming and resource-bound is a good thing; it will make earmarks the exception rather than the rule. But I don't see pledges not to earmark at all as being very credible.


Ben (The Tiger) said...

Unless you get a cranky old man in the White House. :-)

Not that that's all that likely to happen...

TheRadicalModerate said...

Well, cranky old men are a nice damper on the system but even they can't refuse to veto everything that crosses their desk with an earmark in it. They've got some nominal responsibility to make sure that the government keeps running.

Of course, they can make examples of the more egregious offenders, which at least will be entertaining...