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Debate: Earmarks

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Are earmarks valuable or should they be abolished?

Background and context

In US politics, an earmark is a congressional provision that directs approved funds to be spent on specific projects or that directs specific exemptions from taxes or mandated fees.
Typically, a legislator seeks to insert earmarks that direct a specified amount of money to a particular organization or project in his/her home state or district.

Earmarks in the United States have existed for a long time. The idea of directing federal money to specific local projects originally came from Rep. John Calhoun (D-S.C.) when he proposed the Bonus Bill of 1817 to construct highways linking the East and South of the United States to its Western frontier. Yet, the debate over earmarks really only took form as earmarking became a widespread form of government spending. Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent watchdog organization, has argued that widespread earmarking is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics. The organization cites the evolution of earmarks since the 1970s. The 1970 Defense Appropriations Bill had a dozen earmarks; the 1980 bill had 62; and by 2005, the defense bill included 2,671. As this escalation of earmarks continued, the debate over the value of earmarks became increasingly prominent and relevant. During the 2008/2009 economic crisis and economic rescue packages, the widespread and massive scale of earmarking elevated the debate once again, with President Obama promising to cut back on earmarks.

Contents

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Effectiveness: Do earmarks allocate spending effectively?

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Pro

  • Earmarks allocate collective resources where it is needed most. It is important that our collective resources be spend on specific needs. Earmarks are a way to allow collective federal tax dollars to go to needed local projects. For the collective success of a nation, and the greatest good for the greatest number, such a allocation model is very important.


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Con

  • Earmarks are often unrelated to legislation; holds up bill. Sometimes a good piece of legislation that receives the support of a majority of congressman will be held up and voted down purely on the basis that it contains an egregious, unrelated earmark. This undermines the democratic process, in which ideas are judged and voted on based on their own merits. It also opens the door to unfortunate political maneuvering, in which Congressmen insert unfavorable or controversial earmarks into a piece of legislation as a means of holding up a bill they oppose.
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Democratic process: Do earmarks strengthen the democratic process?

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Con

  • Earmarks are often unrelated to legislation; undemocratic. Earmarks often have nothing to do with the actual substance of a piece of legislation, relating to something else entirely. This creates many problems. The most important problem is that votes on a piece of legislation may have nothing to do with whether a member of Congress supports a particular earmark found within. This means that earmarks may pass that have virtually no support of congressman and their constituents, virtually detaching the earmarks from the democratic process itself.


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Transparency: Are earmarks sufficiently transparent?

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Waste: Do earmarks lead to excessive spending and waste?

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Pro

  • Earmarks often go toward important social works; not waste Tony Pearsall, a former police captain and city councilman in Vallejo, Arizona, said, "When you are dealing with kids, who are our future, how can you consider it pork or unreasonable spending?"[3] In general, many or even most earmarks go toward important social works, such as education, that cannot be considered "wasteful".


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Con

  • Earmarks fuel excessive defense spending "The Problem with Earmarks". Charging RINO. July 19, 2006 - "Some stats: 'The number of earmarks in the annual defense spending bill increased from 587 worth $4.2 billion in fiscal 1994 to 2,506 worth $9 billion in fiscal 2005, according to a recent Congressional Research Service study. There were 231 'plus-ups' - the Navy's term for the money Congress adds for its members' pet projects - totaling nearly $600 million just in the Office of Naval Research budget in fiscal 2005, about a quarter of the total.' [...] This is a problem. And until members of Congress take serious steps to end their addiction to earmaking, it's not a problem that's going away."


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Abuse: Can abuse of earmarks be avoided?

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Pro

  • Earmarks have already been significantly reformed Rahm Emanuel. "Don’t Get Rid of Earmarks". New York Times. August 24, 2007 - "we cut the amount of spending on earmarks in half. In 1994, Congress approved 4,126 earmarks; by 2005, the number increased to 15,877. These reforms should end the abuses we saw in Congress over the past six years. [...] We remain committed to further reforms should they fail to do the job. [...] We pledged to clean up the abuses in the earmark process, and we kept that promise. I’ve been in politics long enough not to wait around for a pat on the back, but our reforms do not deserve a kick in the pants either. To ignore our reforms as if they never occurred and to criticize us for not ending a practice we never pledged to end is disingenuous."
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Con


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Equality: Can earmarks be distributed equally?

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Pro

  • Earmarks benefit all equally in the long-run. While it is true that some citizens will benefit from earmarks disproportionately from earmarks in any given year, that is OK. Some citizens may need it more in that period. But, over the long-run, all citizens will benefit from earmarked dollars, and roughly equally.
  • Earmarks need not benefit all equally to be justified. There is no reason why earmarks must benefit all citizens equally, even if they do roughly achieve this objective in the long-run. Some citizens and communities have greater needs than others, even - sometimes - in the long-run. It would not be inherently unjust for a community that suffers from coastal erosion and flooding, for example, to receive more earmarked dollars than another community in the long-run.


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Con

  • Earmarks divide federal tax dollars unequally. Earmarks are spending projects that take federal tax dollars, drawn from taxpayers across a nation, and spend them for isolated projects that benefit a very small and targeted group of people. This opens the door to federal tax dollars benefiting some groups more than others. With different levels of power among legislators and states, the potential for the unequal distribution of federal tax dollars is quite great.
  • Earmarks benefit citizens with powerful legislators. As certain senior members of the legislative branch achieve greater sway and power, they are able to control and direct disproportionate swaths of federal taxpayer dollars toward their home state. This unfairly leaves citizens with less powerful legislators at a disadvantage.


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Founding Fathers: did the founding fathers intend for earmarks?

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Pro

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Pro/con sources

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See also

External links

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