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McConnell Backs Earmark Ban

November 15, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell [R, KY] has reversed course and will now back Sen. Jim DeMint’s [R, SC] earmark moratorium for the 112th Congress. A vote on banning earmarks will be held privately in the GOP conference meeting scheduled for tomorrow, but if doesn’t pass there, DeMint and his main ally, Sen. Tom Coburn [R, OK], will force a vote on the moratorium on the Senate floor Wednesday as an amendment to the food safety bill.

But is the moratorium really a good idea, or just a political stunt?

Less than one percent of the federal budget is earmarked each year — that is, directed by members of Congress to be spent on a specific project. The earmark moratorium does not mean that this money would be cut out of the budget, it means that more of the budget would go directly to agencies for dispersal without any input from senators and representatives. Cutting that money from the budget is a separate issue that would have to be handled with a separate vote.

Ezra Klein argues that conservatives are right on this. “[Earmarking] feeds D.C.‘s massive lobbying complex, and in general, it’s not a wise way to spend federal money,” he writes. It is true, lobbyists lobby Congress way more often than they lobby agencies. But lobbyists can and do lobby agencies, and as agencies get more power over the federal budget under the moratorium, they will undoubtedly start lobbying the agencies more. The earmark moratorium will not curtail the lobbying complex, it will change how and where lobbyists do their work. When Congress has passed limited moratoriums in the past, this is exactly what has happened.

In fact, lobbyists looking for funds might prefer working with agencies because, unlike Congress, the people making decisions in agencies are not accountable to an electorate. They’ll also still be able to lobby members of Congress to lobby agencies and ask for money to be spent on their pet projects. Believe it or not, this happens, and it’s totally secretive and undisclosed. If the 112th Congress institutes an earmark moratorium, the same amount of money will be given out to projects, just with less transparency in the decision-making process and with no way for voters to take action. This is why I have argued that full transparency in the earmarking process beats a moratorium.

Now let’s think about this: how does a non-binding internal policy of the minority party in the Senate affect the overall congressional budgeting process? Got me…

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