The popular press has been obsessed with the topic of earmarks for the last few days.  Some are arguing that the cost of earmarks is insignificant in comparison to the overall size of government.  Others are saying that small, though they may be, eliminating earmarks is an important symbolic step to show that the congress is serious about cutting costs.

Wikipedia provides this definition for earmarks.

“Provisions associated with legislation (appropriations or general legislation) that specify certain congressional spending priorities or in revenue bills that apply to a very limited number of individuals or entities. Earmarks may appear in either the legislative text or report language (committee reports accompanying reported bills and joint explanatory statement accompanying a conference report).”

One point which has been omitted from most of the commentaries I’ve read is this, what is the reason for most earmarks?  If they only benefit a limited number of individuals or entities, why do they get added to appropriation or general legislation bills?  The answer is that legislators get earmarks added to bills in order to convince them to vote for a bill which they otherwise would not have voted for.

It should be a principle of government that a bill stands or fails based upon it’s merits.  Earmarks, then, work against that principle.

So, in addition to the cost, in dollars, of earmarks, we also need to consider the not insignificant cost in freedom.  How many bad laws are passed with earmarks which would not have passed without them?  Eliminating earmarks is nothing like a cure-all, but it is a small step in the right direction.

cross-posted from the Pennsylvania Tenth Amendment Center

Steve Palmer

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