Romantic comedies follow a predictable, yet effective, formula — two people meant to be together can’t seem to make it work, but right when you think they’ve finally overcome all obstacles, there’s a dramatic falling out (typically involving a misunderstanding or misplaced pride). Eventually, one of the two would-be lovers makes a grand gesture, they reconcile and everyone ends up wearing loose-fitting clothing and dancing to Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In on a grassy hill.
They also seem to come in different thematic waves and 2011 appears to be the year of the “friends with benefits” romantic comedy, including No Strings Attached and the conveniently titled, Friends with Benefits. The more I think about it, this is pretty similar to Republicans’ relationship with government. Republicans have an outwardly aloof-to-antagonistic relationship with government, but still like to get a little federal love — often in the form of budget earmarks — when the mood strikes. (Just as long they don’t have to talk about it and can go about their lives as if it never happened.)1
Now you would think that identifying earmarks should be pretty straight-forward. For example, everyone knew the famous $398 million “Bridge to Nowhere” pushed by Congressman Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Don Young (R-AK) was an earmark.2 However, best I can tell, there is no agreed-upon definition of an earmark. It appears that the executive branch, the Senate, the House and just about every different external group looking at earmarks defines them slightly differently. 3 (For example, I found definitions suggesting that funding for something like the 20-year old organization Teach For America is an earmark.) This makes it pretty difficult to compare all of the various reports out there, but is pretty safe to say that both Republicans and Democrats love themselves some earmarks.
For example, Citizens Against Government Waste — using their own definition of “pork-barrel spending” — has tried tracked the volume of earmarks since 1991. I took their data and combined it with my partisan control definitions to come up with the below chart. As you can see, earmarked spending has continued over the past two decades, independent of who was in charge of government.4 (Though it still only adds up to around 1% – 1.5% of all federal spending, depending on the year and which definitions you are using.)
Using another organization’s analysis (and there are a surprising number of organizations out there trying to keep track of earmarks),5 Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates that the FY 2010 federal budget included $15.9 billion in earmarks. Looking at the more egregious examples of earmarks – where the earmark has only one sponsor – five of the top ten senators were Republicans and five were Democrats. Those top-five Republican senators received 236 earmarks for $417 million dollars. (To be fair, the top-five Democratic senators received 337 earmarks for $671 million, but they were in the majority, after all.) In the House, the distributions of earmarks among the top ten looked relatively similar, just on a smaller scale.
So what if historically the number of earmarks has increased when Republicans were in charge of the federal government and last year’s federal budget included billions of dollars in earmarks for Republicans. That’s just history waiting to be revised (see Ronald Reagan). Last year Congressional Republicans in both houses voted to ban earmarks. They even got President Obama to say he was banning earmarks in his State of the Union address this year.6 Republicans and earmarks must be as finished as J.Lo and Marc Anthony, right?
Well, not so fast. There may have been some backsliding in the past year. Last November, Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) made 41 earmark requests totaling $157 million for FY 2011. On the other end of the spectrum, this past April, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) threatened to block Obama’s judicial appointments over a measly $50,000 study on deepening the Port of Charleston (which he got).
There appears to be a couple of things in play here. First, some Republicans are asserting that Congress needs to provide specific spending directions because a) it is their Constitutional responsibility to do so, and b) because if they do not, bureaucrats (i.e., Obama’s socialist minions) will spend the money as they like. Second, these instructions are not earmarks because they don’t specifically state who will get the money, even though they are written with such narrow definitions that they are functionally earmarks. For example, how many companies would qualify for Rep. Duncan Hunter’s (R-CA) language specifying that $5 million dollars be spent on the development of helicopter “brownout” situational awareness tools, particularly when in prior budgets the money was specifically earmarked for a company his uncle founded.7
Looking at the evidence, it appears to me that we’re at the end Act 2 of a “friends with benefits” style romantic comedy between Republicans and earmarks, right before the dramatic Act 3 reconciliation. Things got a little too serious a couple of years ago and Republicans felt the need to publicly dump and humiliate earmarks. However, they can’t seem to resist their obvious chemistry and if they can just get that Obama character out of the picture, I’m sure they will patch things up soon. (And wear loose-fitting clothing while dancing to Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In on a grassy hill.)8
- I suppose if you think about the annual nature of the earmarks and the budget process, you could make the argument it’s more like Same Time, Next Year. ↩
- Though it was never built and funding for it was removed in 2005, it once again became a national issue in 2008 when in her introductory speech as John McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin said, “I told Congress, thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere,” though she strongly supported it while running for governor in 2006. ↩
- http://endingspending.com/earmarks/whatsanearmark/ ↩
- The anomaly occurred in 2006 (actually the FY 2007 budget). That year Congress failed to pass a budget resolution and only two of the eleven appropriations bills were enacted. All of budget eventually got rolled together in early 2007 after Democrats took over Congress, but essentially there wasn’t enough time to markup the individual appropriations bills with goodies for everyone. Democrats also tried to enact a one-time ban on earmarks to help pass a FY 2007 budget and in reaction to public opinion turning hard against earmarks. ↩
- For example, here are some nice interactive maps and charts on earmarks. ↩
- And the Senate Democrats sort of relented, too. ↩
- This doesn’t even include the practices of “letter-marking” and “phone-marking.” ↩
- If you haven’t seen it, please see The 40-Year-Old Virgin and you’ll get this reference. Fantastic closing musical number. ↩