Republicans grudgingly refuse pork with their tea

November 17, 2010

Zero pork is good for hawks. The grudging decision by U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to back a voluntary ban on earmarked funding for pet local projects is a win for his party’s Tea Party faction. But deficit worriers of all political stripes should welcome it, too. Financial pork may “only” cost some $17 billion a year, but it invites undisciplined spending.

Earmarks are federal funding commitments that members of Congress can discreetly direct to their home districts and states. They are quietly folded into massive spending bills, seldom with public debate or review, and have long been targeted by good government types and fiscal nitpickers alike. One of the most infamous examples was the $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere” that would have linked a sparsely populated Alaskan island to the mainland.

Tea Party groups made ending earmarks a big issue during the recent midterm election campaigns, pushing favored candidates to sign up to a ban. House Republicans have already said they will stop the practice when they take control of the lower chamber in January. In the Senate, the powerful McConnell, who has himself requested $114 million in earmarks so far this year, had resisted. But he acquiesced under pressure from outside groups and colleagues like South Carolina’s Jim DeMint and incoming Tea Party favorites such as Florida’s Marco Rubio and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey.

The importance of earmarks has little to do with their dollar value. They add up to only about 1 percent of the total federal budget, and are usually carved out of already-approved spending. But they have a corrosive effect on government. By their nature, they can easily turn into what amounts to legalized bribery in which elected representatives grab earmarks in exchange for campaign contributions.

The habit also serves to discourage spending discipline. If a member of Congress pushes for overall budget restraint or criticizes a “Bridge to Nowhere” project, he might find that federal money earmarked for a museum in his district suddenly gets axed.

It’s not even clear earmarks help the folks back home. A Harvard University study found a surge in a state’s earmark funds is often followed by a decline in business investment as the private sector gets “crowded out” by government. Ending earmarks won’t balance the U.S. budget, but it could make that tough task a bit easier.

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