the Coburn anti-earmarking amendment

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) plans to introduce an amendment this week to ban all earmarks in fiscal years 2011-13. Apparently, the amendment has a decent chance of passing.

The Coburn amendment is not a powerful tool for budget-cutting, even assuming that spending cuts are desirable in the short term. Earmarks in total represent about 0.3% of federal spending, and they direct the government to allocate funds to certain purposes instead of others. In other words, if they were banned, spending would not decline, even by 0.3%. That amount of spending would simply move from some programs to other ones.

Fiscal conservatives make subtler arguments that link earmarks to the rate of overall spending. One argument holds that congressional leaders bribe members into voting for big budgets by giving them earmarks. Conceivably–but by the same token, Speaker Boehner could use earmarks as incentives for members to cut the overall budget. It all depends on the priorities of the leadership.

A second argument holds that members vote for big federal budgets because then there is plenty of room for their pet projects. I don’t see the logic of that. You can consistently vote to cut the federal budget and support an earmark that would allocate one millionth of the whole sum to your favored project.

The ability to add earmarks does allow Members of Congress to direct spending to their own districts in ways that may waste public resources and that help to buy them reelection. That’s a problem, as is the fact that earmarks flow to districts with senior members (not to the places where the most important projects are).

On the other hand, a lot of earmarks are not actually projects located in the sponsors’ own districts. For example, among the educational programs that have earmarks are Teach for America, the National Writing Project, National History Day, and Reading Is Fundamental. These programs are supported by large numbers of legislators. Their work is distributed nationally and they don’t especially benefit any particular districts, but the co-sponsoring legislators are convinced of the programs’ merits.

So the question becomes: Who should decide what is meritorious–Congress or the executive branch? There is an argument in favor of the legislature, an elected, accountable, deliberative body. The Constitution (article 1, section 1) vests “all legislative powers” in Congress, and arguably deciding to invest in Reading is Fundamental or National History Day is a legislative act.

On the other hand, when Congress earmarks money for a particular program, the executive branch agency that disburses the funds loses its ability to select the best organization through a competitive RFP process, and it loses its leverage over the recipient once the grant is made. The important assessment is conducted by legislators and their staff, not by specialists in the appropriate agencies. In occasional interactions with congressional staff, I have found them formidably smart and dedicated, but they cannot evaluate competing bids or evaluate programs, especially small ones. Thus the same earmarked programs tend to receive funds, year in and year out.

In sum, I think the Coburn amendment would do significant collateral damage by knocking out a bunch of small programs that Congress has wisely decided to fund and that the administration will not be authorized to fund. I fear that Congress won’t repair the damage by permitting federal agencies to spend the money for similar purposes.

That is not to say that the earmark process is by any means ideal. For several of the educational programs I know about (at both the k-12 and college levels), a competitive grant program would work better than a congressional earmark for a named program. But an earmark is better than nothing in a considerable number of cases. Congress should be able to decide what to fund directly and when to delegate that power, and we should hold Members accountable for those decisions.