When you listen to the political class nattering over earmarks, they rarely provide examples of the earmarks they are against. Oh, there was the “bridge to nowhere,” of course, and most everybody is against that kind of boondoggle.
But are earmarks good or not? I admit the earmark idea bothers me as it seems to run against fiscal discipline (I bear Scottish blood on my mother’s side). I wonder why all programs don’t run through the same budget process, and, yet, yesterday when Congress could have turned off the earmark spigot, I found myself rooting for the defense. (The country has been deeply divided and now I am.)
The National Writing Project, an effort to provide high quality professional development for teachers is an earmark. Reach Out and Read, which gives books to children through their pediatricians, is another one (full disclosure: I serve as an unpaid member of the board of directors of ROR). Reading is Fundamental makes books available to school-age kids in low income areas, and it, too, is an earmark. I support all of those earmarked programs as I think they are good for the nation.
Presidents usually are not big fans of earmarks. Presidents Clinton and Obama, for instance, both tried to wipe out several of these earmarked literacy programs. It isn’t that they don’t want poor kids to get books, but earmarks ultimately reduce their power. You see, earmarks are not necessarily the budget busters that the press has made them out to be.
For example, if Congress and the Obama Administration agree on funding the Department of Education at $5 billion, and then someone adds an earmark, let’s say for a $10 million for book distribution program, that doesn’t increase the budget by $10 million, but the President does lose control of $10 million of the $5 billion that he was going to spend anyway. The more such earmarks the less power for the President.
Presidents recognize that if they can rid themselves of enough of these earmarked responsibilities they will end up with $50 or $100 million to spend on something that they want.
Think about the bridge to nowhere and about the bridge that collapsed in Minnesota. If transportation funds were not being nibbled away by earmarks, there would be more money to fix existing bridges. But what if the Department of Education is betting its budget on expensive accountability systems not likely to improve reading achievement? Then, earmarks for books or professional development, might be a darn good alternative investment.
It just comes down to whether you want all those spending decisions in the hands of the presidents or whether you want Congress to have any specific say so about spending priorities. Some earmarks are stupid (the easy ones to be against), and some are pretty local: For example, Arne Duncan once had me draft a request for an earmark for reading programs in the Chicago Public Schools. We didn’t get it, but the millions that would have come to Chicago wouldn’t have benefited New York or Los Angeles or anyone else. However, literacy earmarks, like RIF and ROR, provide book distribution nationwide to any community that wants to participate. If making books available to children is a priority—and I think it should be— then earmarks for organizations like RIF or ROR are a good way to go in terms of cost, quality, and local control.
So I give a resounding cheer for literacy earmarks… sort of.