On Repealing the Law of Gravity

This analysis by the Associated Press points out the difficulties associated with living up to President Obama’s pledge that the stimulus bill will be earmark free. The lede:

President Barack Obama’s ban on earmarks in the $825 billion economic stimulus bill doesn’t mean interest groups, lobbyists and lawmakers won’t be able to funnel money to pet projects.

They’re just working around it — and perhaps inadvertently making the process more secretive.

This should come as a surprise to few political scientists. The idea that legislators or presidents could completely eschew political criteria in making spending choices is almost as plausible as the thought that Congress could pass a law directing a river to flow uphill.

Although earmarking, the practice of placing explicit spending instructions in bills (often without much notice or debate), has received enormous attention, political scientists have long understood that such provisions represent but a minor part of congressional influence over spending decisions. As Doug Arnold demonstrated in Congress and Bureaucracy, congressional influence is just as likely to come from two different sources. The first is the spending formulas that are written into legislation. While such formulas may appear neutral on their face, they are carefully crafted to direct spending in ways to maximize political benefits. The second is the inherent desire of bureaucrats to please those legislators who control the purse strings. Therefore, even if spending decisions are formally delegated to agencies, political considerations may still be very important in how the money is spent.

So banning or limiting earmarks can only result in a minor redirection in the river’s course. It cannot stop the water. Moreover as the AP piece points out, shifting spending decisions from earmarks to formulas or bureaucrats (or mayors or governors) may lessen transparency and accountability.

I have little doubt that earmarking has led both to corruption and the undue influence of some groups. But it has struck me that banning the practice is a cure worse than the disease.