Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I see the argument over congressional earmarks as coming down to two issues: should Congress specify that money be used in a certain manner, and if so, how and when should Congress go about doing so?

Knowing that I will annoy the anti-earmark crowd, it is silly to think that the answer to the first question could be anything other than 'yes'. It is nonsensical to think that the founders intended for Congress to be only able to authorize a lump sum of spending and leave it completely to the President's discretion on how to spend those funds, something along the lines of 'here's a pot of money, spend it however you want'. At the very least, Congress has to be able to specify that a certain amount of money be spent on, for example, defense... and another chunk of money on transportation... and another chunk of money on education programs... and so on.

Thus, the real issue comes down to the second question: how Congress should express its desire that a certain amount of money be spent in a certain way.

Let's start by looking at how specific Congress could/should be in designating funding be used in a particular way. Should Congress merely approve a given amount to be spent on national defense and let the President decide how to spend it among the services? Or does Congress get to allocate a specific amount of money for the Air Force and the Marines? Who gets to decide on how much money is used on manpower and how much used to procure weapons?

Should Congress just authorize a certain amount of money to be spent on 'the arts' and let the President decide how to allocate that pot among the various constituencies clamoring for money? What about funding for transportation, should Congress be able to designate that a given amount be spent on rail versus highway? Or does the President get to decide?

I don't have a clear answer as to where the line gets drawn, but I recognize that it has to be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, as neither extreme makes sense.

I'd also add that Congress should also be as transparent as possible in making these allocations. There should be no secret insertions of designated spending at the last minute, nor should the authorization be worded in a way that disguises its use.

And there should also be a minimum spending requirement. While this seems counter to fiscal sanity (do you really want Congress to have an incentive to spend more?), if a certain project doesn't meet a given threshold, it isn't important enough to warrant Congressional designation as a 'must spend'. Instituting a threshold of, say, $5 million, would eliminate scores of current earmarks that are in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.