Why It's Not Worth Slamming Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum on Earmarks

Earmarks make for an easy target but are an insignificant portion of the federal budget.

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The nation is extricating itself from two costly wars, is struggling painfully out of a recession, and is suffering from near complete dysfunction in Congress. And yet, campaigns are still trotting out the old standby—criticism of earmarks and congressional travel.

Both former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have been slammed on the campaign trail for agreeing to (or sponsoring) earmarks in Congress, the suggestion being that the men are not real conservatives if they backed such supposedly wasteful spending.

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It's true that some of the earmarks—which are just dedicated projects in the federal budget—are probably not worth the money. But some of them fund small, pilot programs or needed local infrastructure development that can create jobs and bring other benefits. And while it may seem unfair to set aside a certain amount of cash specifically for one city or university, it can be much cheaper than the alternative, which would be having a federal agency seek and evaluate bids for the project. The overhead is often not worth the cost of the final project. Further, earmarks are such a ridiculously small part of the budget that it's a fantasy that their elimination would do anything substantive to balance the budget. Entitlement reform is difficult for both parties, which is why campaigns seize on something as small and insignificant as earmarks to attack a candidate.

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And now, Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona is being criticized by his Senate primary opponent for taking foreign trips in his capacity as a U.S. congressman. In a slick Web ad called "FlakeAir," GOP opponent Will Cardon accuses Flake of having "traveled the world at taxpayer expense ... more than any other Arizona House member."

Firstly, Arizona only has eight House members, so being first isn't much of a distinction. Secondly, Flake was a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which by definition makes him a more frequent foreign traveler (now that Flake is on the Appropriations Committee, he is not permitted, under House rules, to serve on any other panel). And most importantly, why would anyone want members of Congress to avoid meeting foreign leaders and picking up on-the-ground intelligence in foreign countries? The United States doesn't exist in a bubble. Changes abroad, be they the European debt crisis, terrorist recruiting, or the Arab Spring, happen whether or not Congress decides to pay attention to foreign affairs. The most dangerous response is refusing to learn about it.

And as for the expense: Is that really a legitimate argument? That's like telling a high school graduate to skip college to save money.

The nation is facing a lot of challenges and problems, Surely, candidates can come up with something more substantive to use against their opponents.

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