The federal debt has surged with the triple whammy of all time, greater than World War II: tax cuts, coronavirus relief, Great Recession 2.0. And all basically in peacetime, when a nation ought to be paying down its debts, not piling them on.
The fault lies with both major parties. Republicans have added big tax cuts, unfunded benefits and military spending under its two most recent presidents; Democrats and Republicans passed the first big coronavirus relief bill, although once a Democratic president got in this year, GOP members hypocritically decried federal spending.
The third whammy is the inevitable economic costs of shutdowns and business declines caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Do we want, at this debt-laden crossroads, to add another means for members of Congress to write checks to their constituents?
Members of both parties want to bring back earmarks, direct spending grants to their projects and districts, banned in recent years.
The Wall Street Journal reprised some of the greatest hits from earmark days. One of them passed into the language, a $223 million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.
In Louisiana, where political horse-trading is an art form, key members of Congress used earmarks to benefit the state.
One of Louisiana’s most effective U.S. senators was J. Bennett Johnson Jr., of Shreveport. Among other institutions, he used earmarks as well as other legislative maneuvers to steer research funding to LSU.
There is force to Johnston’s argument that federal spending on research is valuable for the nation and the world, but where research dollars are directed has an economic development effect: Steering all the monies to the already prominent research institutions in the northeast or West Coast — the Harvards and Stanfords of the world — leaves out much of the country.
However, for many fiscal conservatives, the earmarks were a “gateway drug” to more spending.
Further, there is more than a little corrupting effect on the political process, with members of Congress being wooed by the leadership with earmarked spending.
In the decade since earmarks were banned, has federal spending diminished? No, it has increased.
Conservatives, said the Journal, shouldn’t give more power to what their editorial page considers spendthrifts in the party in power: “Behaving like the me-too spending party won’t make it easier to run against the Washington status quo.”
And there is the dirty not-so-secret reality of earmarks. They would be outward and visible signs of the drive for power, whether for the parties or for powerful barons in Congress doling out the favors.
Surely now is not the time to repeal the 2011 ban on earmarks.