Wikipedia defines an earmark as a "provision that directs approved funds to be spent on specific projects, or that directs specific exemptions from taxes or mandated fees." The very word has a grubby sound, and the practice seems even grubbier. Earmarks were a debate topic of the 2008 presidential campaign, but no one expected they'd become the first casualty in the Battle of the Budget declared by congressional Republicans. Is the proposed moratorium on earmarks symbolic, or substantive?
The possibilities for corruption and pedal-to-the-metal spending seem endemic to earmarks, but as experienced politicians might sigh, "It's complicated." Not just liberals, either; James Inhofe, R-Okla., rated one of the most conservative members of the Senate, insists that "a congressional earmark moratorium won't save a single taxpayer dime." Congress has already appropriated the money; what earmarks do is give the peoples' representatives a say over how some of it is spent, rather than turning it all over to the executive branch with its countless unaccountable agencies. And although glaring abuses like the "Bridge to Nowhere" and the "Cornhusker Kickback" grab all the headlines, earmarks have secured worthy conservative programs like the Predator drone. Sen. Inhofe finds it at least ironic that earmark spending has shrunk in proportion to the ballooning budget overall: "Talk about specks versus planks!"
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., brings his own biblical allusions to the other side of the argument, pointing out that even though earmark spending is less than 2 percent of the federal budget, it takes up time and energy that should go to overseeing the agencies entrusted with the rest of the money. "It is as if Congress has called a truce with the executive branch: Don't hassle us about our 2 percent, and we'll offer only token interference with your 98 percent," he said. "Such a poor trade has not been made since the days of Esau."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a supporter of earmarks, has reversed his position on the grounds of "the people have spoken." The debate is far from over, but that's a good start. We may be talking about small change, proportionately, but big principle. In the mid-1990s, Rudy Giuliani reduced crime in New York City by prosecuting petty crimes previously overlooked. By stopping subway turnstile-jumpers, the NYPD also stopped burglars and muggers-because major crooks start out as petty crooks. The same dynamic may apply here: Putting the kibosh on small spending should help rein in bigger and bigger spending. Besides, we have to start somewhere. If the 112th Congress can be faithful with little (Matthew 25:21), perhaps the 113th will take on much.