The facts about federal earmarks

Published 2:38 pm Friday, May 30, 2014

Over the last several months there has been a lot of discussion concerning federal earmarks, and the perception of additional government waste. I wanted to take a moment to clear up some of the misconceptions, and describe the facts behind how the federal government appropriates funding. Basically federal spending is divided by the U.S. Treasury into three main categories; mandatory spending, discretionary spending and interest on debt.

Mandatory spending is divided up into the different earned benefit or entitlement programs. Basically these are programs that have been created by the federal government, that are available to any person, and are automatically awarded to those who qualify.

Some examples are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment, Supplemental Nutrition Program, Veterans Benefits and retirement benefits for military and federal employees to name a few. While several of these also will receive discretionary spending as well, the mandatory funding is the fixed amount based on a formula derived in law that is automatically granted each year.

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It is projected that in 2015, mandatory spending will comprise approximately two-thirds of the total federal budget of around $3.9 trillion. In contrast, the interest on federal debt is estimated to be approximately 6 percent of the total federal budget.

This now brings us to the discretionary spending portion of the budget, which is estimated in 2015 to be a little under one-third of the total federal budget. This is the portion that is appropriated by Congress each year to the various agencies and departments of the federal government. Some of these include the Department of Defense, Education, Homeland Security, Department of Energy, Transportation, and the Housing of Urban Development to list a few.

During this budget process to determine the departmental and agency division of discretionary spending is where earmarks would arise, directing the various departments or agencies to spend a certain amount of the appropriated funds to a specific project in a specific area.

Where the confusion arises, is when people think that these earmarks add to the amount of federal money spent each year, when in fact it does not. Each year, the House and Senate Budget Committees come together to form a concurrent congressional resolution to determine how much money the federal government will spend for that particular fiscal year. This amount is then sent to the respective appropriation committees to divide up how the money will be appropriated into the three categories previously mentioned of mandatory spending, discretionary spending, and interest on federal debt.

What needs to be understood, is that the amount resolved by Congress to be spent in a given year, will be appropriated and spent, with or without any earmarks. In 2010, when Congress enacted a ban on any earmarks during the appropriations process, the only thing that changed was that instead of your elected senator and congressmen being able to direct a portion of that funding back to his or her state and constituency, that money is now being appropriated to the various government agencies to spend as they see fit. Basically the decision was taken out of the hands of our elected officials and placed in the hands of the various bureaucrats that are appointed by the executive branch to their respective positions, and bear no accountability to the voters.

Also to put into perspective the amount of money earmarks directed, again in 2010, the last year that earmarks were allowed in congress, the Citizens Against Government Waste calculated that earmarks accounted for less than one half of one percent of the total federal budget, while the federal Office of Management and Budget calculated that earmarks amounted to only one-third of one percent.

So basically, the removal of earmarks from our congressional system didn’t change the amount of money being spent, it simply changed who makes the decision on where the money is directed. So smaller states like ours miss out on funding opportunities that are now going to the larger areas such as Detroit, Chicago and New York.

One other point I would like to mention concerns some of the current dangerous thought directed towards absolutely no compromise. This is not how our government was set up to function, and I believe has led to much of the dysfunction we see in Washington today. I know of no relationship that could survive with the outlook of I get all of what I want or we get nothing.

I would like to remind everyone of a quote by former president Ronald Regan in which he stated, “Die-hard conservatives thought that if I couldn’t get everything I asked for, I should jump off the cliff with the flag flying – go down in flames. No, if I can get 70 or 80 percent of what it is I’m trying to get … I’ll take that and then continue to try to get the rest in the future.”

No one is going to agree with every issue that a particular senator or congressman votes on, but if by that vote, they were able to gain enough support to bring a much needed project to our state, then that is the way our system was designed to operate.

While the decision on who you choose to vote for in the upcoming election is a personal one, I just hope it can be an informed decision based on facts, and not relying on the various rhetoric that inevitably comes out in the campaign process. Personally, I believe we are spending too much time discussing the less than 1 percent spent, and not enough on how to control the other 99 percent that continues to grow out of control and increasing our national debt. May God bless.

Alton Shaw is the mayor of the town of Wesson.