(Feb. 16) Conservatives theoretically are right to lament that Democrats plan to renew the practice of “earmarking” specific, local projects in spending bills. In practice, though, the end of the “ban” on earmarks won’t make much difference. For that, conservatives have themselves to blame.

For years, conservatives pushed for an earmark ban, arguing that allowing congressmen to direct funds to specific pork projects encouraged extra spending and created incentives for graft. The latter argument remains legitimate, although corrupt politicians don’t need earmarks if they want to engage in grift and graft. The former argument, though, the one about saving money, proved mistaken.

After various earlier attempts to ban the local pork practice, some of which did operate as de facto bans temporarily, both chambers of Congress formally prohibited earmarks in 2011. Fiscally conservative Republicans had taken majorities in both chambers by then, so the earmark ban was part-and-parcel of their broader attempts to restrain President Barack Obama’s big-government proclivities.

And yes, whether due to the restriction on specific pork or just due to Tea Party-inspired fiscal discipline, the levels of domestic discretionary spending essentially flat-lined for a few years, rising from $528 billion in 2012 (the first fiscal year for which the ban applied) to just $531 billion in 2015. In sum, such appropriations rose by less than inflation.

This was well and good. Still, when a fiscally profligate Donald Trump took office, the earmark ban did nothing whatsoever to restrain spending, even with supposedly conservative Republicans still controlling both House and Senate in 2017-18. The first Trump-era domestic appropriations (for fiscal 2018) skyrocketed from $586 billion to $722 billion in one year, without a single crisis to justify it. (See table 5.6 here.) Even without earmarks, Congress spends however much it wants to spend.

The earmark ban proved immaterial because of the way it was designed….

[The full column is here.]


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