By Tom Still

MADISON – If you believe what you hear on talk radio, federal budget “earmarks” are a shameful waste of public dollars, a prime reason why the budget deficit is soaring, and maybe even a cause for the imminent collapse of Western Civilization.
In hopes the court of public opinion has yet to reach a decision, here are a few myths and facts about earmarks – a term that describes specific federal spending items “marked” by individual members of Congress.

Myth: Earmarks are a major reason why federal spending is out of control.

Fact: In most budget years, earmarks account for less than 1 percent of all federal spending. The latest outcry is over the $410 billion federal spending bill for 2009, passed by the Senate, which is estimated to have about $7.7 billion in earmarks requested by lawmakers. That’s about 2 percent of the total.

Myth: Earmarks always represent additional spending.

Fact: Earmarks are usually spending carved out of general-purpose money federal agencies receive through the normal budget process. They’re a small portion of the total amount lawmakers agree to spend during a given year. Instead of being part of the general “pot” available for agency priorities, earmarks are a slice set aside by congressional request.

“If earmarks go, the amount of money stays the same,” said Charles Konigsberg, chief budget counsel at the independent Concord Coalition, in a interview. “It’s more about who decides how the money will be spent.”

Myth: Earmarks are a new way for members of Congress to play mischief with the budget.

Fact: Earmarks have been around almost as long as Congress itself. The Government Accountability Office found one example dating to 1791, when Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton requested that $50,756.53 be spent on “several objects.” But the use of earmarks has grown in the past 15 years – along with the federal budget itself.

Myth: Earmarks are a way to defy the president’s budget priorities.

Fact: Presidents use earmarks, too, to get what they want. But they’re mainly a tool used by members of Congress to advance ideas that don’t make it into a presidential budget. Some members of Congress view earmarks as a necessary check-and-balance against the powers of the executive branch.

“The last time we looked at the Constitution, it gave Congress the power of the purse,” said U.S. Rep. David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. Obey, speaking last fall at the dedication of the Marshfield Clinic’s Laird Center for Medical Research, noted that no Congress has ever changed a president’s budget by more than 3 percent. “This is a democracy, not a monarchy, and we shouldn’t … throw out the baby with the bathwater because of the abuse of the process by a few people on Capitol Hill.”

By the way, the core funding for the clinic’s research center came from an earmark. Now it is home to the Wisconsin Genomics Initiative, one of the most innovative projects of its kind in the world.

Myth: Democrats use earmarks far more than Republicans.

Fact: Earmarks are pretty much a bipartisan sport. It’s more about which party is in power. Watchdog groups say about 60 percent of earmarks come from the majority party and 40 percent from the minority party.

Myth: Earmarks are always used to fund wasteful projects.

Fact:  Sure, there’s the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska and some other notable abuses, but most earmarks pay for projects deemed useful by someone. Most UW System campuses, for example, benefit from earmarks that help support research, training or other activities. While federal agencies don’t generally like earmarks because the money comes from their overall budgets, those agencies have the ability to strictly manage and audit projects they believe are truly wasteful.

Earmarks are the well-publicized tip of a much bigger iceberg. Federal spending has grown because of problems imbedded in the other 99 percent of the budget, including major entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and the accumulation of service payments on the national debt.

These days, earmarks are the public-opinion equivalent of an AIG bonus check. But if citizens are really worried about federal spending, as they should be, there are far bigger places to look for savings.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.