Times Reporters, Editors Defend Earmarks With Democratic Talking Points

The issue of congressional earmarks - provisions that lawmakers insert into unrelated legislation directing money to a particular project in their district - tends to split along party lines, with Republicans in favor of elimination or reform and Democrats defending the spending. Reporter A.G. Sulzberger gave voice to the latter in Tuesday's "Defenders of Earmarks Point to Urgent Needs That Would Not Be Met."

The Times editorialized against earmark reform on November 17 ("The Empty Earmarks Pledge"), and Times reporters have also dismissed its importance, an argument favorable to the big-spending Democratic caucus, constantly quoting the statistic, passed along by Democrats, that earmarks comprise less than one percent of total federal spending. That formulation ignores how small earmarks can be used as leverage to pass far more substantive legislation.

Sulzberger wrote in defense of earmarks on Tuesday:

With their vote last week to support a moratorium on earmarks, House and Senate Republicans are taking aim at a popular target: the much-criticized system for distributing federal money that reflects politicians' clout as much as the merits of projects in their districts.

In doing so, Republicans are hoping to tap into growing public concern about federal spending, and stand up to the kind of projects that have become reliable late-night punch lines over the years, like bridges to nowhere, teapot museums and studies of pig odor.

But at a local level, there remain many supporters of earmarks, who argue that they play an important role - solving basic and urgent infrastructure needs in communities - that is often lost in their cartoonish portrayals.


Money can take many different routes from budgets in Washington to projects in communities. The vast majority is allocated through the decisions of federal bureaucracy, which often uses formulas to rank priorities, or by the states themselves, where critics say the money is often distributed as pork anyway, only by governors and state lawmakers instead of members of Congress.

Earmarks, which for all their controversy account for less than half of 1 percent of total federal spending, allow lawmakers to specify how money is used in their home states. If they were eliminated, Congress would cede more authority over spending decisions to the executive branch.

Reporter David Herszenhorn made the same argument on November 17: "While earmarks amount to a trickle in the government's flood of red ink - slightly more than three-tenths of 1 percent of federal spending - most of that money would still be expended by federal agencies in the absence of earmarks but without specific directions from Congress."

And Congressional reporter Carl Hulse reported on November 16: "Republicans in the House and Senate are to vote this week on prohibiting earmarks, which have become a symbol of government excess and backroom dealing, although they account for a very small part of the overall budget."

Meanwhile, the Times has glossed over arguments that make earmark reform look necessary. It has yet to mention during the current earmark debate Sen. Ben Nelson's infamous "Cornhusker kickback," a deal made in December 2009 giving Nebraska extra Medicaid money indefinitely in return for his vote on Obama-care (after public outcry, the "kickback" was stricken from the final Obama-care bill after public outcry). While not technically an earmark, the sausage-making showed how local favoritism can grease the wheels of legislation to the detriment of the nation's good.