A lot of the progressive commentary I’ve seen about the idea of banning congressional “earmarks” lately has some rather mocking or dismissive of the banners. And many good points have been made. Populist conservatives really do tend to drastically overstate the importance of this issue. And many conservative appear to not actually understand how earmarking works and don’t realize that there’s no particular reason to believe that ending earmarks will reduce spending at all — what matters is the size of the appropriation. Earmarking, or lack of earmarking, merely changes around who decides what the money gets spent on.
But all that said, any kind of sensibly operationalized ban on earmarks really will, in a small way, be a good thing. Since members of congress are elected to represent specific geographical constituencies, it’s inevitable that parochial interests will be overrepresented in the legislative process relative to national interests. Any procedural rule that leans against that tendency is, in my view, a good thing. It’s good not because representation of local interests is a bad thing per se, but simply because our political system is very heavily weighted in that direction anyway.
If you look at the long-term budget projections, the fact of the matter is that the aging of the population and the growth of health care costs is set to increase federal spending above a sustainable level. That means we’ll need higher taxes. And it means will need better approaches to health care. But it also means that all public spending on everything that’s not health care for senior citizens is going to come under substantial pressure. Under the circumstances, if you care about the purposes advanced by domestic discretionary spending it’s important to make sure that pot of money is spent as efficiently as possible. Curtailing earmarks should advance that goal, and if Mitch McConnell’s fear of tea partiers is making that more likely, then that’s a good thing.