Congressional initiatives, added to the president's specific priorities, have come to be known as "earmarks." The power of the purse is expressly bestowed upon Congress by the Constitution and must be protected to maintain the balance of power between the branches of government.
Earmarks, however, actually make up a tiny portion of the budget but have received a disproportionate share of attention.
This attention is due in part to some appropriate criticism of wasteful earmarks and, in part, to purely political motives.
While in control, Republicans reveled in earmarks, quadrupling the number. When Democrats took back Congress in 2007, we imposed strict accountability rules. Now, lawmakers must disclose their earmarks, certify that they have no personal financial stake in them and identify any private entity that might benefit. The public can track every dime, and we are in the process of adopting further transparency measures this year.
Democrats have also significantly cut earmarks, reducing them by more than 40% last year and cutting them further this year. Now, they make up less than 2% of the most recent spending bill.
Some politicians try to cultivate an image of fiscal discipline by railing against earmarks — and "pork" also makes a great story for the news media. But as congressional scholar Thomas Mann recently noted, earmarks do not generally increase spending but simply allow members of Congress to direct a small part of a program's funding. "Abolishing all earmarks would therefore have a trivial effect on the level of spending," Mann explained, adding that "hyperbolic attacks on earmarks are a disservice to the public, encouraging people to concentrate way too much attention and energy on a largely symbolic issue and ignore the critical decisions that we face."
Getting our fiscal house in order is much more difficult and more essential than arguing over earmarks. We must take a tough look at the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and reform our defense budget to protect our security and tax dollars. Only by making tough choices on big issues will we return our nation to fiscal responsibility.
Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., is majority leader of the House of Representatives.