It’s Not What They Eat, It’s What They Spoil

It's Not What They Eat, It's What They Spoil

The incoming Obama administration and Congressional majority claim they will banish “earmarks.” Legislative “earmarks” at the federal, state, and local levels are often targets of government reform efforts, but for the wrong reasons. While dollar amounts seem impressive in isolation, “pork” per se forms a negligible percentage of government budgets (only about one percent of the federal budget, for example).

But the true cost of earmarks is much higher than dollar amounts suggest. In the words of  revered political theorist Darrell K. Royal: “It’s not what they eat, it’s what they spoil.”

Earmarks are special legislative actions appropriating public funds for specific projects in a lawmaker’s constituency or in the interests of his/her campaign donors. Earmarks are parasitic pests, often infesting larger host legislation (Military Appropriation and Omnibus Spending bills are frequent disease vectors) and may even escape detection by burrowing under the skin of the legislative process itself. Epidemiologists and would-be physicians of the Body Politic can enumerate the huge range of earmark genera and species; what is important is the toxicity of earmarks, the way they poison and disrupt the healthy functioning of our entire system of  government.

Again, don’t be distracted by dollar amounts. There are things money can’t buy — like time. Government is a decision-making process, and time for decision-making is very limited since congressmen work a 3-day week. While most decisions are not made by the folks you voted for but by the smart staffers they hire (thank God!), but lawmakers and staff pursuing dinky sums for tiny home district projects don’t have  time or attention left for healthcare reform, financial system restructuring,  and other huge issues that effect us all. Long-range planning is sacrificed for slapdash measures that often have unforeseen negative consequences.

Earmarks also destroy the healthy functioning of the Executive branch. Congress appropriates funds to Executive departments for redistribution through the mult-stage grants process, structured to ensure fair, impartial, and wisest use of scarce public resources. Panels of independent experts evaluate and rank-order proposals, and well-established controls safeguard against conflicts of interest and self-dealing. 

The grants process funds projects most likely to succeed and have the greatest impact. The earmark process dispenses with expert review, practically ensuring poor bang-per-public-buck. Does funding a local project outside the review process mean lawmakers think they are smarter than the experts, or is it an admission that local people cannot compete on merit?  Whatever; earmarks undermine orderly, rational regranting programs. waste legislative time and public funds,  and unravel work done in legislatimg and administering  Executive branch grants programs.

How do lawmakers get away with earmarks? Joe and Jane Public demand them. Joe and Jane may say they hate government pork, but they mean other peoples’ government pork. If voters in each constituency encourage sloppy ad hoc government-by-earmark, elected officials are happy to oblige. Politicians, like other simple species, chiefly desire to stay in the nice warm kitchen of incumbency.

Stop sloppy government. Stop whining to legislators for earmarks and compete for funding. Tell your elected officials to cease –and forbid — the slimy practice of earmarks and get back to real work.  If they don’t, reach for the Flit-gun and exterminate ’em at the ballot box. Don’t blame the bugs for your own dirty kitchen.


The genericized and dormant Flit tradename and logo may be registered trademarks of Ess0/Mobil (successors of Standard Oil) but are used here under the satire provision of the Fair Use doctrine.

Image by Mike Licht. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht,

Comments are welcome if they are on-topic, substantive, concise, and not obscene. Comments may be edited for clarity and length.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: