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September 08, 2008

Comments

As (almost) always, of course you're right.

Sadly, the 5% of the people who are unaware of the connection between ruinous Republican rule and the ruin we've had for the past 8 years of it think 'earmarks' are what they make at the mall kiosk right before they sterilize the piercing equipment.

But yeah, the reason earmarks lead to bad government is that they allow special interest stupidity to buy actual votes when it buys influence with party leaders.

what's this "almost" BS? :)

Count me among the people who actually favor earmarks. I think of them as "honest graft," and as the kind of thing that can bring a little economic stimulus to a locality that might never get it otherwise. It's like funding for the arts or for public broadcasting--the dollar amounts are so low that they don't really matter in DC, but they can matter a lot to a small town or to a neighborhood in a big city.

But isn't the other half the times when the legislator from Idaho can't be bothered to vote for expensive but very necessary projects that benefit the East Coast, but does so anyway in order to get cooperation on something for his own district?

It seems to me that earmarks are kind of the grease that makes Washington go. There needs to be some sort of currency that legislators can use to logroll. If there wasn't, they'd invent something. And if there really, truly wasn't and could never be such a thing, I'm not convinced they'd be voting their conscience instead.

As an inveterate C-Span viewer who would rather watch a feisty sub-committee hearing than a ball game, I have seen Sen. Kent Conrad and Sen. Pete Domenici, chatting after a long, hard budget mark-up hearing, reminisce approvingly of earmarks past. They seemed to agree that seed money for ARPAnet and the human genome project was 'earmarked'. They seemed to distinguish between 'earmarks' and 'pork', as should we all.

What I want to know is, why does McCain favor 'earmark' as a term of disparagement. 'Pork' or 'pork barrel projects' would seem more disparaging, no?

--TP

"Count me among the people who actually favor earmarks."

Much of the time, ditto. I'd just as soon have my local representative be able to direct some good works towards my district then have it solely evaluated by some faceless bureaucrats in Washington with no local input. Why this isn't a Republican position is an interesting question.

The question isn't whether money should be directed solely by the executive branch, or whether the legislative branch should have some trivial input, but whether it's a good project or a bad project.

is arpanet an earmark? i would think it was just part of general funding that got allocated within DOD, but maybe i'm wrong about that. this is why i think the earmark debate is really tough -- gov spending does do good things at times.

also, on arpanet, everyone with any interest should read "Where Wizards Stay Up Late" -- it's a history of the Internet book focusing specifically on late 50s to mid 70s. it's great

i sort of wonder if you could have magically transported jon postel in 1975 to 2008 and let him watch a youtube video whether he would cry with joy

I think I'd see it as more "honest graft" if it were more transparent. Such that the criteria for judging it were more, 'this benefit was gained by my constituency while supporting X benfit for my colleague's constituency; and I'm willing to explicitly defend the combination of the two interests as being in the interest of the country as a whole.'

The lack of transparency involved is, IMHO, the most salient argument against acceptance of this practice as a norm. The unwillingness to take a public stand against which "bullsh!t" may be called is what diminishes the validity of the practice, IHMO.

I see what you're saying, CMatt, and I'm certainly in favor of the recent reform that requires legislators to put their names on their earmarks. That will hopefully stop some of the more egregious stuff, like roads that local officials don't actually want to give one example. But if the relatively small amounts we're dealing with in earmarks is the price we pay for getting stuff done, I can live with that. The real graft is in the Defense Department, after all. That's where we ought to be holding people accountable.

I don't think transparency is a problem, really. It's not like pork-barrel projects are kept secret, especially by the Congressmen who deliver them. The appropriations bills are public records.

True, those bills run to thousands of pages (what with all the earmarks, and everything) and nobody has time to read them. But most people don't have the time to read War and Peace either. The reason is not Tolstoy's lack of transparency, exactly.

The reason we average citizens feel uninformed about all those earmarks is because we pay our Congressmen to deal with that stuff so we don't have to. If anybody tried to sit us down and explain all of them to us we would not say "Oh good, transparency at last!"

--TP

The biggest problem is that many of the earmarks being given out are no longer in the category of "honest graft". They're being directly lobbied for by people who stand to profit from them. That's the rankest kind of corruption.

Since we seem to be discussing Sarah Palin by other means, isn't the central issue that...

1) Gov. Palin claims to be a "reformer" and a "maverick" because she opposes earmarks.

2) She, in fact, doesn't oppose earmarks at all.

3) Thus she is a liar and, by her own criteria, neither a "maverick" nor a "reformer."

Whether or not earmarks are a good in and of themselves is pretty irrelevant to this evaluation of Gov. Palin. From a political perspective, this would seem to be a singularly bad time to start muddying these waters by arguing over the desirability of earmarks.

and their constituents could care less either way

OT. I honestly rarely do this but for some reason this particular phrase drives me completely insane. I think what you mean is "couldn't care less." I am not certain when "could care less" became the more common phrasing of this particular expression but it means, as far as I can tell, the opposite of what it is intended to express.

There are a couple of other common expressions that somehow get under my skin in this way but I usually manage to resist commenting whenever I hear or read them. This particular expression however, too often, just breaks my resolve to avoid this sort of pedantry. If I ever go into counseling I will make a point of bringing it up.

"From a political perspective, this would seem to be a singularly bad time to start muddying these waters by arguing over the desirability of earmarks."

I think I'll somehow manage to avoid tipping the election to McCain if I venture a muddying opinion or two.

Why was there no Schoolhouse Rock song for earmark?

Nice.

What does Congress do when they give money to an agency and the agency spends it on something other than what Congress intended?
Good earmarks serve the purpose of ensuring that the money was spent on the project approved by Congress and not on pet projects of the Administration. Army Corps of Engineers projects are almost all funded by earmarks.
But like all tools, earmarks can be used for ill and good alike. Reducing one type and increasing the other is the challenge for Congress.

Another borrow and spend Republican. Nothing new here.

First comment here on a blog that I am reading more and more often.

Does anyone have numbers showing the total expenditure on earmarks versus the spending on our two current wars or even, say, entitlements like Social Security/Medicare? I suspect it amounts to a tiny hill of beans with respect to the other stuff. I understand the McCain/Palin need to look like they are running away from Bush policies, but I think they are focusing on small-bore stuff with no real potential impact. A classic feint that appears to be working at the moment.

First comment here on a blog that I am reading more and more often.

Does anyone have numbers showing the total expenditure on earmarks versus the spending on our two current wars or even, say, entitlements like Social Security/Medicare? I suspect it amounts to a tiny hill of beans with respect to the other stuff. I understand the McCain/Palin need to look like they are running away from Bush policies, but I think they are focusing on small-bore stuff with no real potential impact. A classic feint that appears to be working at the moment.

One has to remember, though, that we're dealing with the people who coined the phrase reality based community as an insult.

Aside from her belief that earmarks are not that important, Gail Collins had a larger point to make in that column, which is worth a read: she uses this example among several to show that John McCain is still in his Senate mode, not thinking about the array of problems that the next president must confront. He is still running for the Senate.

McCain's use of the term "earmark" is typical of how politicians will take a term--say "earmark" or "the surge"--and then simplify it to the point where its real meaning is no longer clear, or even important, and then use it as a rallying point or pejorative.

And the sad fact is, most Americans are not interested enough to learn the facts behind the buzz words.

It's not the "Earmarks" it's the lack of "Transparency" that's the problem. Not all earmarks are bad - some actually help local communities.

Delaine Reiter: Social Security/Medicare are not "entitlements". Both are paid for by special taxes designated for them alone. They are not part of the general budget. In fact, Social Security ran and has been running a surplus for the last several years. You've heard of the Soc Sec Trust Fund I'm sure - several Trillion dollars in the black. Social Security has been loaning money to the General Fund for several years which is one reason why the deficit isn't larger than it is now.

Apropos of nothing: WHERE is Andrew Sullivan? No posts yesterday, save a lovely picture from LA. This is so unlike him, and no explanation on his blogsite.

No blogposts at all since Sunday night after 9:30.

Very concerned; if it was health or an accident, his assistant would have put up a message.

What are any of you hearing? We cannot afford to have Andrew's voice silenced during such a crucial election season.

It's not the "Earmarks" it's the lack of "Transparency" that's the problem. Not all earmarks are bad - some actually help local communities.

Such legislation has been introduced to the Senate. Amazingly, written by Obama and co-sponsored by Tom Coburn, Tom Carper and the Maverick himself.

OT cont.

I think what you mean is "couldn't care less." [instead of 'could care less']. I am not certain when "could care less" became the more common phrasing of this particular expression but it means, as far as I can tell, the opposite of what it is intended to express.

Brent:

I am able to squelch my inner pedant most of the time, but this drives me nuts, too. It's not really publius' fault - it's part of the vernacular now. But in my fevered mind, it's right up there with saying 'literally' when you mean 'figuratively' (I'm lookin' at you, Biden). Or using an apostrophe to denote plural. Does. Not. Compute. I'll go back to my basket weaving now...

I think earmarks are a fake issue just as gun grabbing or being pro life are fake issues. However it is very effective to run on fake issues. And it is very ineffective to try to convince the public of the fakeness of the issue.

Besides earmarks are inevitable. People expect thier legislator to bringhome the bacon. Everyone wants THEIR legislator to earmark for THEM. SO there really isn't any point in arguing about this.

Obama is right: focus on the fakeness, not the earmarks. McCain and Palin are liars.

BTW I think that McCAin and Palin are going to win. Not by much, but win nethertheless. She helps him with independents who, for the most part, are irrational when it comes to voting. A fake fight against the earmarks that independents want their own legislators to bring hme for them is exactly the kind of stupid issue that could tip a basically ignorant voter into the R camp: like all Republican pitches it appeals to selfishness and a perverted meanspirited misunderstanding of self interest. Someone who lives from pay check to pay check and listens with one ear to TV "news" can easily be presuaded that his or her taxes would be less if those evil Democrats would stop spending so much on earmarks. It's like term limits or bums on welfare or cutting taxes--Republican bullshit, but resonant with people who don't do their homework and have a built-in inclination for simple solutions that amount to nothing more than blaming everything on someone else.

I think earmarks are a fake issue just as gun grabbing or being pro life are fake issues. However it is very effective to run on fake issues. And it is very ineffective to try to convince the public of the fakeness of the issue.

Besides earmarks are inevitable. People expect thier legislator to bringhome the bacon. Everyone wants THEIR legislator to earmark for THEM. SO there really isn't any point in arguing about this.

Obama is right: focus on the fakeness, not the earmarks. McCain and Palin are liars.

BTW I think that McCAin and Palin are going to win. Not by much, but win nethertheless. She helps him with independents who, for the most part, are irrational when it comes to voting. A fake fight against the earmarks that independents want their own legislators to bring hme for them is exactly the kind of stupid issue that could tip a basically ignorant voter into the R camp: like all Republican pitches it appeals to selfishness and a perverted meanspirited misunderstanding of self interest. Someone who lives from pay check to pay check and listens with one ear to TV "news" can easily be presuaded that his or her taxes would be less if those evil Democrats would stop spending so much on earmarks. It's like term limits or bums on welfare or cutting taxes--Republican bullshit, but resonant with people who don't do their homework and have a built-in inclination for simple solutions that amount to nothing more than blaming everything on someone else.

Sorry about the double post.

Democrats need an emotionally resounant non issue that will tip just enough independents our way. I'm not good at identifying that sort of issue but here's a juicy tidbit:

The Frontiersman / May 23, 2000

Gov. Tony Knowles recently signed legislation protecting victims of sexual assault from being billed for tests to collect evidence of the crime, but one local police chief said the new law will further burden taxpayers.

While the Alaska State Troopers and most municipal police agencies have covered the cost of exams, which cost between $300 to $1,200 apiece, the Wasilla police department does charge the victims of sexual assault for the tests.

Wasilla Police Chief Charlie Fannon does not agree with the new legislation, saying the law will require the city and communities to come up with more funds to cover the costs of the forensic exams.

Fallon was Palin's pick for chief of police to replace the chief who wanted to close the bars at two in the morning instead of five in the morning.

So is that how she plans to save money? Privatize prosecutions for sex offenses by making the victims pay for the collection of evidence?
That is pretty nasty to expect rape victims to pay to gather evidence.

To the degree earmarks are vote- and influence-buying of the sort that Tocqueville anticipated and dreaded, they are a bad thing.

IMO, of course.

Democrats need an emotionally resounant non issue that will tip just enough independents our way.

No. Democrats need an emotionally resonant real issue that will tip the issue their way. I thought that Obama's line about the "ownership society" meaning "you're on your own" was exactly the line that could win the election. People are genuinely and viscerally scared of losing their jobs and with them their homes and health insurance.

The Democrats need to play not just on the issue but on the fear. Republicans have been winning elections since forever by whipping up fear on issues of physical security: National Security (first communists and now terrorists) and crime (with a healthy leavening of racist fear thrown in). I don't think they've been winning because they have better policies. They've been winning because they do a better job of convincing people that they understand and will try to protect them. The Democrats need to do the same thing but with economic and health security.

Publius is just plain wrong about the impact of earmarks on partisan polarization. Perhaps a counterfactual will help elucidate his error.

Consider, for a moment, a congressman facing a vote on a polarizing bill. His party wants him to vote one way. His conscience, his constituents, or both, pull in the other direction. Publius points out that the standard practice, in cases such as these, is for his party leaders to offer him an earmark as an inducement, or to threaten to remove one. Horrors! A perversion of good government!

Now, let's consider the world without earmarks or targeted provisions. All bills are crafted with general provisions; the allocation of resources to states and districts is determined entirely by the agencies of the executive. At the end of a two-year term, there are no projects in the district to which a congressman can point and say: "There! I did that!" Instead, the legislator is reduced to making claims like, “I authored/voted for the bill that did that!” There’s a world of difference between the two claims. Even worse, because of the pace of the federal government, almost nothing gets completed within a two-year timeframe. With an earmark/targeted provision, the legislator can step up and say, “I secured $50 million in funding for…” But with a general piece of legislation, the claims are necessarily theoretical until the bureaucrats decide on the impact on the district. And even when they do, the legislator can’t really take credit for their decisions.

So let’s go back to that bill. The party leadership has only one tool at its disposal – it can support or oppose the reelection of the legislator in question. That’s a blunt instrument. So does partisanship decline? No, it simply realigns, and then emerges stronger than ever. A congressman who knows that he can’t offset an unpopular vote with a popular earmark bows to the popular will. In some ways, that’s great. But in others, it’s terrible. Most bills, after all, don't register in the public consciousness at all. It threatens to elevate the symbolic over the real. If the congressman can’t say to his constituents, “Here’s what I’ve done for you,” he’s far more likely to base his campaign upon emotional, polarizing issues. If all bills become national in their scope, without specifying local application, then politics becomes national, as well. And party organizations, in such an environment, are likely to rise in importance – without the vital tool of targeted allocations to craft a local coalition of support, legislators will be forced to turn to their parties for aid.

Is that too hypothetical? Well, let me boil it down to a phrase: targeted allocations (including earmarks) are the tie that binds locally-elected legislators to their constituents. Get rid of them, and you sever that tie. Nationalize legislation, and you nationalize elections, making the partisan affiliation of a legislator more important than his ties to local issues. One of the strengths of the American system is that our legislators represent their districts as much as the nation. That's often maddening. But it means that they're accountable to their constituents, not to some central party apparatus. And on the whole, it works pretty well.

I'm with Incertus on this, actually. The debate boils down to this: Who decides how taxpayer dollars get spent?

It's something of a political Rorschach test. If you buy into a Progressive vision of government, staffed with highly-skilled, impartial experts who assess the needs of the people and then move to address them with Solomonic wisdom, you obviously don't want Congress interfering with the proper distribution of funds based on something as crass and craven as its slavish adherence to special interests. If, on the other hand, you buy into a Populist worldview, you understand that the government is filled with incompetent bureaucrats who couldn't make a living in the real world, and who pursue their private grudges and agendas with remarkable waste, sloth, and incompetence, and who have often been corrupted by powerful outside interests. It's up to the people, in the form of their elected representatives, to set things right. Of course, this isn't a pure left/right divide, let alone a Democratic/Republican split. But I think it goes a long way toward explaining one of the central mysteries of the Abramoff Era - that it was generally the congressmen with the greatest disdain for government who fought hardest to bring government-funded projects to their districts. On the surface, that's a contradiction; but if you frame the debate in these terms, it makes some sense.

It also explains why John McCain hates earmarks; it's of a piece with his campaign finance crusade. He idolizes Teddy Roosevelt and tends to cast himself in the mold of that Progressive Republican. One reason he has so often broken with his party is this conviction that government should be led by independent men of honor, following the dictates of their own consciences - and its corollary, that 'special interests' and other outside forces pervert the proper workings of government. McCain wants his government small, to be sure, but he also wants it independent. He wants it honorable. So he wants to get rid of money, lobbyists, earmarks, and the like. (And yes, I'm well aware of who staffs his campaign, and that he's the only major party nominee ever to work as a lobbyist himself. But there’s no contradiction there, at least in McCain’s mind. If you believe in the Honorable Man, bravely following the dictates of his own conscience and not the howls of the mob, then it matters not where he works or with whom he surrounds himself. He will invariably do what is right.) In homage to his advanced age, I’ll note that McCain’s stance is actually not entirely dissimilar to that of the Publius of the Federalist papers; both are friends of business, skeptical of special interests, and emphasize the primacy of national defense.

I think all of this is important to understanding McCain’s obsession with earmarks, his defense of Sarah Palin’s record, and the public reception of his remarks.

McCain is obsessed with earmarks because they embody, perhaps better than anything else, the rude pragmatism of our political life. John McCain is about ideals and honor; it offends him that someone would vote for a bill to secure a payoff. That’s why he can defend Sarah Palin with a straight face. He’s convinced himself that she, too, is that rara avis, an honest politician. That’s a judgment of personal integrity, not linked to actual performance or facts. No number of earmarks, then, can alter this impression. And that’s what the public responds to – McCain’s earnest presentation of himself as a man of integrity, battling those willing to compromise any principal in pursuit of expedience.

So the key to refuting McCain on earmarks isn’t to argue over their merits as part of the legislative process. It’s not to point out that Sarah Palin has requested them in the past. And it’s not to present a pie-chart of the federal budget, explaining to the public in stentorian tones that if they weren’t so stupid, they would understand that getting rid of earmarks won’t solve anything.

No, the key is to attack McCain’s perceived strength: his honesty and independence. When he takes on earmarks, he’s really telling the public that he’s on its side, that he puts his nation first. So the rebuttal ought to focus on refuting that notion. That’s why attacks on his wealth proved effective; they suggested that McCain doesn’t really understand the public’s problems or share its best interests. Attacking Palin as a liar – or better yet, a hypocrite – also helps. And most importantly, the Democrats need to continue to define McCain as a creature of the status quo. How can you be an independent reformer when you vote with Bush? It’s not a bad question.

We’re dealing with symbols here. The only way to fight them isn’t with facts, but with a different symbolic vocabulary. McCain is saying he’s honest; we need to say he isn’t.

Yeah, that may be true, but if you center a campaign around wasteful spending and highlight earmarks as the main culprit, you can get an awful lot of people looking one way when you flush $10 Bil down the toilet the other.


How bout reporting exactly what these politicians are up to?

How bout highlighting the candidates proposed policies and the direct effects on how they affect Sarah Palin's pregnant dollar - whoa, almost lost it for a second. How they would affect the lives of the millions and millions of people who are not in the 1-5 million dollar income range.

i sort of wonder if you could have magically transported jon postel in 1975 to 2008 and let him watch a youtube video whether he would cry with joy

I think that depends entirely on the video he's shown! If, on the other hand, he was shown virtally any xkcd, there's no doubt there would be tears of joy.

"I think earmarks are a fake issue just as gun grabbing or being pro life are fake issues. However it is very effective to run on fake issues. And it is very ineffective to try to convince the public of the fakeness of the issue."

Good observation. This is so true. It is just like the fake 'change' Obama claimed and the fake 'race baiting' he accused both Clintons of employing. His raising of fake issues led to his narrow win over Hilary.

Fake issues are very effective. I have been trying to point this out for months. But sadly fake issues appeal to liberals just as much as they appeal to conservatives.

Why are earmarks supposed to be a problem? All money spent by the government is earmarked (tied to a specific project) at some point. The only question is where in the chain of control that happens.

McCain only objects to Congressional earmarks - he would prefer that the president (currently George Bush and his appointees) had the discretion to target the funds instead.

I suppose the assumption is that the president is good and honest and would never use the money to reward his political allies or punish those who might vote against his war or his tax plan or his attacks on civil liberties.

Isn't the flip-side of earmarks just Administration directed funding? Earmarks don't appropriate money, they just direct it to be spent on a particular project, the money coming from a particular budget.

The overall question is how and who decides where the money goes. What is fair?

Rodger Moore: Yes, you are right: an emotionally resonate reall issue. And the "ownership society means you are on your own: is a good one.

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