Earmarks – The West Virginia Solution

The U.S. Congress is considering eliminating earmarks – the ability of a Senator or a Congressman to mandate that federal money will be spent in a given manner in his or her state.  Presumably, the argument against “earmarking” is twofold.  One criticism is that it results in stupid expenditures (the bridge to nowhere, studies of butterfly populations, etc.).  Secondly, it results in some states (West Virginia when Byrd was alive) getting much more than others.

West Virginia had the same sort of dynamic in the “budget digest” where a few legislators allocated budget funds as a perk to those in power.  Pursuant to a court decision, our legislature changed the system.  We now have community participation grants.  When I was in the legislature that meant a Delegate or Senator could allocate state funds to a given project or organization but there was a dollar limit to how much anyone person could allocate and it had to fall into certain broad categories. 

This is a good system.  Without earmarks, the budget puts “site specific” and “timing” decisions on expenditures in the hands of the bureaucracy and the executive branch.  Unlimited “earmarking” leads to the abuses, real or perceived, discussed above.  The West Virginia solution is to allow the practice but limit the amount.

If every Congressperson can allocate up to X dollars then because the amount it limited it is more likely than not that only worthwile projects will be funded.  This also eliminates the “Bryd problem” because everyone gets the same earmarking authority so the expenditures done in this manner will “match” the population.


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