Under strong pressure from tea party favorites Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this week changed his long-held position in favor of earmarks. Senate Republicans will now, it seems, follow their colleagues in the House and agree to a moratorium on requesting earmarks.
Sometimes in life you need to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. For backers of the tea party’s drive to end earmarks, this is one of those times.
Tea party supporters often claim that they want a return to the constitutional system. But the U.S. Constitution created a separation of powers in which the Congress would have the power of the purse, and the president would have only a limited role in the spending power – to sign or veto spending bills. The founders deliberately invested the authority to spend money in the branch of government that was most representative, and most closely accountable to the people.
Eliminating earmarks diminishes the constitutional role of Congress in the spending process and bestows that power on the executive branch. Tea party supporters and earmark opponents are turning over the power to make thousands of spending decisions, on everything from which flood control projects will be funded to how spending on military bases will be distributed, to President Obama.
In pushing for an end to earmarks, tea party supporters are empowering President Obama and the unelected, democratically unaccountable federal bureaucracy that they claim to oppose.
Tea party supporters frequently make the case that earmarks are a “gateway drug” that forces members of Congress to vote for appropriations bills that are more expensive than they otherwise would be in order to preserve their “pet projects.” Liberals, on the other hand, often oppose earmarks for the opposite reason, claiming that earmarks entice liberal and moderate members to vote for spending bills that do not adequately fund priorities in order to gain earmarked projects.
The reality, as we see it, is that without earmarks it will be much more difficult to get moderate and liberal members to go along with spending cuts that may be necessary to reduce the deficit – one of the major goals of the tea party movement. By eliminating earmarks, tea party supporters may have lost one of their most effective tools for building coalitions to make painful cuts in spending. Earmarks can be viewed as the spoonful of sugar that makes the bitter medicine of deficit reduction go down; without earmarked projects, enacting tough legislation will be even more difficult.
As we demonstrate in our book, Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks Are Good for American Democracy, eliminating earmarks is a symbolic gesture that will not eliminate one dollar in government spending. An end to earmarks, however, will upset the constitutional balance of power by shifting power away from Congress and to the president. The earmark moratorium will make deficit reduction and governing even more difficult.
Scott A. Frisch and Sean Q. Kelly are professors of political science at California State University Channel Islands. Their book, Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks Are Good for American Democracy, was recently published in paperback by Paradigm Publishers.