November 10, 2010
Rand Paul & Earmarks: Substance or Symbolism?
By Jim Babka

I received messages from DC Downsizers asking about Rand Paul's position on earmarks.

In essence, they want to know, "How a legislator who professes interest in Downsizing the federal budget can pursue federal funds for his or her state, without being considered a hypocrite?" 

First, to be very, very clear, it's not our job to defend (or attack) politicians, personally. The Senator-elect knows very well that we'll work together where we agree and express our views where we disagree.

But I think there's an educational moment to be had in at least partially answering this question, so I'm going to share my thoughts with you -- with everyone -- in this blog post.

Second, there are lots of things that could be said about directing federal funds to a given area. There's even a body of work to demonstrate that it costs, not creates jobs in the district back home, and that this practice tends to harm the overall economy. So my response is by no means comprehensive, but I hope it's an enlightening start... 

Rand's father was long on-record as saying that this was a non-issue. Representative Ron Paul says that earmarking means that when money is allocated, Congress, instead of the President, gets to determine where a portion of the money is spent. Money is ALREADY ALLOCATED. It will be spent. Members of Congress can then line-up to grab a piece of it before the final resolution is passed. If the local member doesn't step up, others will show up to claim it for their district. This practice is certainly NOT un-constitutional.

On the other hand, one could argue, as I would, that earmarks probably do (albeit mildly) inflate spending -- and worse, they might even buy votes for a particular spending package (that is, they may be inherently corrupting).

However, they don't constitute a serious problem in terms of actual dollars. Ending earmarks would, at best, reduce the national budget by less than $20 billion (though, since the money was already allocated, perhaps not even that much). The budget is $3.7 trillion. The deficit is more than $1.5 trillion. Earmark reform is, therefore, largely symbolic. That's why I've had a hard time getting excited about this issue.

What was more interesting to me is what Rand had to say about putting everything, including defense spending, on the table. He wants the next budget to be balanced, and he's the only one offering a path that both sides can compromise to achieve. Certainly, Mitch McConnell's plan -- Barack Obama must quit or be defeated -- is not the basis for getting to a balanced budget. And the GOP plan of tackling only non-defense, discretionary spending (about 16% of the budget) by rolling it back to 2008 levels, is not sufficient to achieve the kind of change Rand is proposing.

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