One of the odder aspects of recent American politics has been the bipartisan fervor against so-called “earmarks.” These are, it’s true, a less-than-ideal method of budgeting. But the U.S. budget process has a lot of flaws and I see no real reason to think that earmarking is high on the list. But John McCain and Barack Obama both hate ’em and now they’re public enemy number one, so the Obama administration has made a big deal out of its earmark-free stimulus. But I wonder, has this really been a good feature on net?
As is well-known, in order to secure the votes of the handful of Republican Senators necessary to overcome the 60-vote hurdle, Obama had to make some non-trivial concessions. Those concessions have made the stimulus much less effective than it otherwise might have been and will lead to hundreds of thousands of people being unemployed who could have been engaged in productive labor. Suppose that instead of making this sort of large, substantive concession Obama had just been able to offer pointless pet projects for Pennsylvania and Maine. It seems to me that because those projects would have had locally concentrated benefits you could have made the deal worthwhile to Sens. Specter, Collins, and Snowe for a much lower bottom-line cost and ultimately better-served the public interest.
In other words, simply eliminating the most effective means of buying votes in the legislature doesn’t eliminate the practical necessity to do it. It just ensures that the vote-buying gets done in less efficient ways.