As Republicans in the Senate voted yesterday to ban earmarks, and some in the Democratic Party pressed for the same thing, it is obvious that this earmark story is confusing many voters.
"@jamiedupree would you address, in a separate blog, how a ban on earmarks strengthens the executive branch. I'm confused," wrote one person on Twitter.
"How about the stimulus bill, I was asking for a simple tweet with the number of earmarks," asked another.
Here is your Congressional question of the day - how many earmarks were in the stimulus bill?
The correct answer is - ZERO.
That's right. There weren't any earmarks in the stimulus law. But there was a lot of money which was sent out to federal departments and agencies, and they used that money to make thousands of grants around the country.
In that way, Congress ceded the power to determine how the money is doled out to the states, allowing the Executive Branch to have the final say.
I have called those earmarks "Executive Branch Pork" in the past - do a Google search for that and you'll find some of the examples. If Congress handed out money like that, people would be up in arms.
So let's try this example in terms of explaining some of the additional confusion on earmarks.
It is easy enough to understand that some lawmakers are against earmarks in bills, as they argue that it will save money. Sounds logical enough.
But in some cases, striking out an earmark does not save money. In order to do that, you have to actually cut the budget of the federal agency that hands out the money.
Let's say we are working on a bill that will fund bridge repairs around the country. For the sake of this blog, we will say that the bill has a total price tag of $500 billion for the Transportation Department.
So, $500 billion will be doled out to the states for bridge repairs under this plan that only exists for my blog purposes. Usually, money is divided up among the states through a special formula set by the Congress.
But let's say that a very important bridge has recently collapsed in Savannah - the Herman Talmadge Memorial Bridge - which links Savannah and South Carolina.
It is very important in terms of transportation links in that area, and the fake collapse of the bridge has also negatively impacted river traffic to the Port of Savannah, endangering jobs in that area.
So, lawmakers from South Carolina and Georgia want to make sure this fictitious bridge repair legislation sends some money to rebuild this bridge, and they won language which directs $100 million for that purpose.
But - that's an earmark - and so, Republicans in the Congress defeat the plan, and strip out the home state project.
Does that save $100 million?
The answer is - NO.
Nope. In this case, the underlying pot of money going to the feds for bridge repair projects stays the same - there just aren't added instructions on how $100 million should have gone to this Savannah bridge project.
The feds can still direct some money to the Savannah project - another example of an Executive Branch Earmark.
So, if you really want to cut the budget, then you have to go in and decide what big programs to cut from various federal agencies. Money to help build roads and bridges? Money for housing? For first responders? You get the picture.
Yes, cutting earmarks will cut out some spending - but not very much - unless you actually start cutting the underlying budgets of various departments.
The real test will come next year for Republicans in the Congress.