A recent CNN investigative effort shows–surprise, surprise–that the Democrats haven’t kept their promise to back off on earmarking. But I think that earmarks also get far too much attention relative to their importance. Last year’s “record” earmark budget was only about 1 percent of federal spending. Highway earmarks–always the single largest chunk of earmark money–almost always involve specifying a particular purpose for money that would go to a state anyway. Eliminating them would give local governments more autonomy but it would not save tax dollars or reduce the scope of government. Many earmarks, furthermore, involve members of Congress grabbing credit for things that would be done anyway. In any case, I don’t see a clear reason why the federal government should ever provide money to states for anything without a competitive process but, by that token, I can’t see why earmarks are worse than block grants.
Federal funding for local bike trails, gardens, and museums makes for good headlines. But focusing on earmarks along may distract people from looking at deeper, more important reforms that would actually reduce the size and scope of government. Eliminating all earmarks tomorrow, after all, would still leave us with the same, big government we have today.