Earmarking is a tool used by representatives and senators to address specific funding concerns in their districts or states. Earmarks are Constitutional. The Founders intended Congress to oversee the spending of taxpayer dollars and earmarks provide a vehicle for the responsibility rather than giving a blank check to the President. Earmarks create accountable spending by putting government funding in the hands of those who can be supported or (if a wasteful earmark) defeated by voters instead of unelected bureaucrats. Earmarks are responsive to local needs, addressing the concerns of a county sheriff who could never navigate the 180,000-man Homeland Security bureaucracy to get the funding he needs. Earmarks are little more than legislatively directed block grants.

Earmarks directed by our legislators make up less than one-half of one percent of federal spending; the other 99.5 percent of spending is controlled by the Presidential Administration.

Earmarks can be strategic tools for economic development. We earmark improvements at Mississippi military bases to increase their value and make them less likely to be closed. We earmark research programs at our universities to help attract industry (automotive, energy). We earmark rural roads not on the state highway plan to facilitate new industry and jobs.

Government is too big: it takes too many of our taxpayer dollars, it immorally wastes those dollars, and when the money should be spent, it does so ineffectively. Eliminating Constitutional, accountable, responsive, earmarks is not the solution to over spending. But an earmark moratorium is a solution to a bigger problem: a lack of trust and confidence in the government.

I support earmarking as a Constitutional and effective tool for federal spending, but I believe Republicans like Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker are right to seek and support a moratorium on earmarks. Wicker said this is "an important first step demonstrating that we are serious about...changing the way business is done in Washington." He is right. People want this change.

It isn't about the spending; it's about the trust.

How is it not about spending? If you make $65,000 a year, one-half of one percent is $325. For someone at that salary, that is still a decent wad of cash to hand over. But eliminating earmarks isn't eliminating that cost; it is only changing the process. Rather than paying cash, you write a check instead. You didn't save any money.

However, some argue that earmarks create an incentive in increased non-earmark spending. They suggest by ensuring every congressman their specific funding requests are included in an appropriations bill, few will vote against it. Thus earmarks create sure passage for a massive spending bill with billions in excessive spending. That is a compelling argument and worth a shot; but seldom does a silver bullet policy hit the intended target.

I fear earmarks could be replaced by programmatic spending that increases spending while masking the authors and targets. Currently, earmarks are requested by a member of congress and the project is described in the legislation. For example, Rep. Bill Faulkner wants to create an industrial site to attract manufacturing jobs in Yoknapatawpha County. He requests an earmark; his name is on the request; the earmark says "$400,000 for water and sewer infrastructure for economic development park in Yoknapatawpha County, Miss." If Rep. Faulkner's constituents don't like it, they can vote against him in the next election.

Without earmarks, Congressman Faulkner still wants that project. So instead he creates a national program funding stream for rural communities to apply for those funds and makes sure the criteria for application are built around Yoknapatawpha County. Because another 100 counties across the country fit those same criteria, he goes to the congressmen representing those districts and they agree to support the funding stream, which now must be increased to include their counties. That $400,000 earmark is now a $40 million program and voters don't know who did it.

I am cynical eliminating earmarks will reduce spending. And that is exactly why Republicans ought to stop earmarks. Cynicism. Doubt. Skepticism. Congress has lost the trust of the American people. The Republican Party has lost the trust of fiscal conservatives. Both must regain that trust. No government regardless of good policies can be effective without the confidence of the people.

Perhaps one day in the future a smaller and more responsible federal government will decide it can cut even more spending by ending programmatic funding formulas and instead allow those elected by the people to do targeted, transparent spending accountable to the voters. They might call them earmarks. They might call them block grants. But that's can't happen without the trust of the people.

Eliminating earmarks may not do much for reducing spending, but it could do much for restoring confidence and trust, and for those goals the earmark moratorium is worth its weight - and the weight of the federal budget - in gold.



Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at: reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.