Senate Republicans’ unanimous vote Tuesday to place a moratorium on congressional earmarks was more symbolic than substantive in terms of deficit reduction, given that such spending constitutes less than one half of one percent of the federal budget.
But it’s substantive in a big way in Mississippi, and an end to earmarks would have a huge impact in this, the nation’s poorest state.
Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, has been the Senate’s leading earmarker – directing federal spending to specific projects in the state – with Sen. Roger Wicker not far behind. Both reversed their long-standing positions in defense of the process on Tuesday, voting with other Republicans to halt it.
If ever there were a sign of the political times, that was it. As recently as last spring, Cochran had adamantly opposed changes in the process, and a statement he issued Tuesday said pointedly that he thought the moratorium was misdirected but that he would accede to the wishes of his Republican colleagues.
Wicker’s change was based, he said, on listening to the people as they spoke in the recent election.
People like to disparage public spending in the abstract, but the efforts of Cochran, Wicker and others have brought more than $2 billion to Mississippi just in the current two-year congressional term. Among the biggest beneficiaries nationally of earmarks have been Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi, and in an interview with the Daily Journal last week, MSU President Mark Keenum said an end to earmarks would “greatly hamper” the university’s research efforts.
Earmarks have helped make possible untold transportation and infrastructure projects through the years in Northeast Mississippi, as well as bringing jobs directly to the region. This state has relied on such funding for decades to help even the playing field with wealthier, more populous states. There is no way that local governments and the state will be able to make up the difference.
As Cochran has pointed out before and again on Tuesday, it is the constitutional responsibility of Congress to appropriate money, and eliminating earmarks turns over to the executive branch – in this case the Obama administration – excessive authority to decide where that money in the federal budget goes.
Earmarks are not the root cause of our federal fiscal mess, nor even a major contributor to it. They’re an easy target because of the occasional abuses, which gives the move to eliminate them symbolic power. But Mississippi will lose much as a result, and it remains to be seen whether that’s what the voters really want.
NEMS Daily Journal