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May 18, 2011

Is there a difference between earmarks at the federal level and at the state level?

In a May 15 article, The Daily Caller (TDC) seems to be trying to whip up some controversy regarding possible GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s apparent inconsistency on the earmarks issue.

Given that Bachmann is a TEA party favorite, this is a serious charge.  TDC notes that she has secured nearly $4 million in earmarks for her district since she was first elected to Congress in 2007.  She also argued to exclude transportation projects from a GOP-championed earmarks moratorium.

These facts are enough to raise eyebrows among TEA partiers and constitutionalists.  I’d like to know how she defends these actions.  Do they undermine the credibility of her TEA Party Caucus on Capitol Hill?

While the answers to these questions are important, TDC raises another issue that got under my skin:

Bachmann’s penchant for earmarks dates back to her days in the Minnesota state Senate. Despite her reputation as a fiscal conservative, from 2001-2006, then-state Senator Bachmann proposed more than $60 million in earmarks, including a $710,000 “Bond For Centerville Local Improvements Around Highway 14? and a $40,000,000 “Bond for Lino Lakes And Columbus Township Highway Interchanges.”

Doug Sachtleben, Bachmann’s communications director, sought to explain the earmarks, arguing that voters resent “taking money from taxpayers in one state to pay for a host of wasteful projects in other states.” He added that voters “also expect that things like road projects should be done at the state level, where voters can have a say through the selling of bonds.” These are not absurd arguments — bridges have to get built somehow — but Tea Party activists may find the argument that earmarks are fine at the state level as appealing as Mitt Romney’s argument that individual health care mandates are fine so long as they are enacted at the state level.

When it comes to government, I believe in the principle of subsidiarity – namely, that any activity that ought to be taken on by government should be taken on by the lowest level of government that can get the job done. 

Road and bridge construction is most certainly not in the constitutional domain of the federal government.  So, what about the other levels? 

Some necessary infrastructure is within the financial means of municipal and county governments.  But the reality is that major projects – highway interchanges, bridges, etc. – can quickly wipe out the treasuries of smaller cities and towns (and the counties containing them).  The money has to come from a higher level.

But think about this: What is a county?  It is an administrative subdivision of… the state government!  Counties are entities created by the state enabling it to govern regions more efficiently.  Likewise, cities are state-created entities.  So, it could be argued that spending at the city, county or state level could all be considered state spending.

This fact – and the principle of subsidiarity – are what make the final sentence in the above excerpt so nonsensical.  Are there TEA partiers who think that the state should not fund highway projects (whether at the request of a local representative or not)?  If there are any, I’d like to hear the logic behind such a position.  I suspect, though, that the author’s “Tea Party activists” are made of straw.

One final thought on the excerpt’s final sentence: There is no equivalence between state funding of transportation infrastructure (a legitimate government concern) and state funding of health care (not a legitimate government concern).

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