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Editorial | On Politics

Battle over federal earmarks more symbolism than substance


Don’t you just hate it when politicians get all rational?

Hating earmarks is all the rage. The new session of Congress opens in January, but already the Republican leaders have scared themselves silly over the pestilence of earmarks.

Earmarks mean that your senators and representatives have a bit of a say in directing money we give Washington back here to their home state. For instance, Hawaii’s favorite earmarker and senior U.S. senator, Daniel K. Inouye, brags that he steered $657,000 to the Guam Brown Tree Snake Management program, which helps stop the snakes from invading Hawaii.

Of course, Arizona’s "I spit on all earmarks, especially Inouye’s" Sen. John McCain got up on the Senate floor last year to make fun of Hawaii wanting to not be overrun with snakes. While McCain took no earmark money, fellow Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl sucked down $5.2 million for the Hoover Dam bypass bridge and another $3 million in loans for the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Besides giving us Sarah Palin, McCain has also made everyone get really mad about earmarks. Banning earmarks was a major part of his unsuccessful campaign for president two years ago.

The problem with earmarks, as Inouye likes to explain, is that it is discretionary spending. It doesn’t go away, the money is not saved. If Inouye doesn’t spend it shooing away snakes or fluffing up the East-West Center, someone else grabs it and gives it to their state.

"The problem is it doesn’t save any money. It’s an argument about discretion … an argument between the executive branch and the legislative branch over how funds should be spent," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY.

Then a week later McConnell flip-flopped and said he would support a ban on earmarks. Claim a big victory for the tea party forces in Washington.

Some rational thought alongside the symbolism of the earmarks fight is needed.

According to Politico and The Wall Street Journal, Inouye, at a Washington news conference, chuckled at the earmark fuss, explaining that earmarks are less than 1 percent of the federal government discretionary spending.

Here is what the numbers looks like: $1,390,000,000,000 for discretionary spending ($1.39 trillion), $11,000,000,000 last year’s earmarks ($11 billion) and Inouye’s earmarks were $388,000,000 ($388 million).

Yes, I know the Washington cliche attributed to the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, "A billion here and billion there and pretty soon you are talking real money" — but in the case of banning earmarks, the better quote comes from President Lyndon Baines Johnson: "This dog won’t hunt."

Richard Borreca writes on politics every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Reach him at


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