Ending Earmarks Won't Solve the Federal Budget Deficit Problem

Unless lawmakers rein in entitlement spending the federal budget faces a long-term crisis.

By + More

This election season is an era of easy targets, a time when voter anger and frustration is so high that simple talk and scapegoating easily crowd out discussions of painful solutions to difficult and complicated problems. Blame high taxes for sluggish private-sector hiring. Blame George W. Bush for getting us here in the first place. Blame President Obama for not insisting on a more left-leaning agenda, even when a moderate-left agenda is hard enough to get through Congress.

And now candidates, especially Democrats worried about losing their congressional majorities, are returning to an easy target in the budget crisis: congressional earmarks.

They’re a legitimate collective punching bag, to be sure. Do we really need a Bridge to Nowhere, when bridges that actually connect communities are falling apart? A $231,000 appropriation for e-commerce research? A $10 million outlay for a National Institute for Hometown security in Kentucky, when the focus might be better directed at homeland security?

[Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

New Hampshire Senate candidate Paul Hodes, a Democrat struggling to pick up a Senate seat in a year that is shaping up as a potential disaster for the party, is taking aim at earmarks in his campaign. A TV spot shows a table of competitive hot dog eaters, uncouthly shoving the pork products into their mouths as quickly as they can.

“I’m Paul Hodes and I wanted to give you an idea of how they like to spend money in Washington,’’ the candidate says, firmly promising to bring back Gramm-Rudman spending limits and continuing to refuse any earmarks for his state.

[See who supports Hodes.]

Unfortunately, this is the equivalent of an over-mortgaged, heavily in-debt individual trying to get fiscally fit by choosing deli coffee over a $3.50 latte at a fancy coffee shop. It’s a sensible move (and $3.50 for coffee is worth rejecting on principle), but it won’t save anyone from foreclosure. Earmarks totaled $15.9 billion in fiscal year 2010 (down from $19.9 billion in fiscal year 2009, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, which meticulously tallies the pork projects each year--or slightly up, from $15.6 billion in 2009, depending on how one counts the projects).

But in overall budget terms, it’s just a weekly latte at best. Even $15.9 billion in arguably unnecessary spending is just a tiny fraction of a federal budget adding up to more than $3.5 trillion. The biggest chunk of that budget is entitlements--the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid spending politicians are loathe to trim. But unless lawmakers make the tougher choice--finding a way to rein in entitlement spending without thrusting the elderly into poverty--the federal budget faces a long-term crisis. And it’s certainly one that can’t be solved by dropping a bridge project.

  • Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on the economy.
  • Follow the money in Congress.
  • Read more coverage of the political stories of the year.