Pork vs. Earmarks: What’s the Difference?
I think it is great that the candidates for the open congressional seat in Southwest Missouri are having an ongoing discussion about wasteful spending, earmarks, and pork. The Springfield News-Leader had an informative story about it the other day, which both Missouri Political News Service and Combest brought to my attention.
Here’s the issue that got the story going: Sen. Gary Nodler, one of the candidates for Congress, maintained that his support for government funding of a business in his district was not an “earmark.” His position has raised the ire of certain people, including the commentators over at MOPNS. I completely understand the frustration there with the far-too-common issue of conservatives who decry government spending except when it occurs in their own districts, but I am going to come (somewhat) to Sen. Nodler’s defense.
We will get into strict definitions of pork, earmarks, etc., in a moment, but I agree with the conventional understanding, which Sen. Nodler appears to share, that an “earmark” constitutes spending that is added to a bill late in the legislative process, usually after all the committee work has been completed. Such spending usually receives little, if any, oversight or review before the money goes out the door. “Pork”, as I have generally considered it, is spending for specific projects that strictly benefit a limited group of people but are paid for by a wide group of people. So, I think it’s fair for Sen. Nodler to contend that this spending for the Joplin battery maker was not an “earmark,” because it was included during the committee debates. However, the spending is clearly “pork,” by anyone’s definition.
In my mind, earmarks and pork do not have to be the same thing. Both are usually poor policy, but not always. How do others define them? Here is the White House definition, which I basically reject outright because it totally co-opts Congress’ constitutional authority to appropriate money. As the Office of Management and Budget basically puts it, if Congress spends money the way that the White House tells it to do so, that is good. However, if it spends money outside White House authority, that is bad. Total garbage. Slate had a good piece a few years ago trying to explain the differing definitions of “pork” and “earmark.”
Citizens Against Government Waste is a terrific group. They have a definition of “pork” that includes most earmarks. To them, any government spending is “pork” if it meets two of these seven guidelines:
- Requested by only one chamber of Congress;
- Not specifically authorized;
- Not competitively awarded;
- Not requested by the President (or Governor in our case);
- Greatly exceeds the President’s budget request or the previous year’s funding;
- Not the subject of congressional hearings; or
- Serves only a local or special interest.
So, I agree with Sen. Nodler that his project was not an earmark, according to how I understood the term. Now, if he tried to say that spending $25 million for a battery factory in his district was not “pork,” that would be different, because it seems to fit at least four of the above criteria (3, 4, 6, 7, and perhaps 1). I will gladly stand corrected if anything I have said is incorrect, so Jeff City staff should be feel to clarify in the comments section.