Perhaps the following is obvious, but I was just struck that it was something I’d entirely overlooked while thinking about the election. Most budget proposals have a heavy element of voodoo, since the campaign’s ability to implement them is limited, and because the numbers never quite add up. However, McCain’s choice to sell his budget as based on cutting earmarks is especially weird. The first issue is that earmarks are only $16 billion, which is about 10% of the 2007 deficit, which has been pointed out by a lot of people. What just struck me, however, is the question “why should we think that $16 billion would actually go away?”
Earmarks are a process for appropriating money. They’re a bad process, but like any other way of appropriating money, they give mixed results. There’s a lot of waste, but there are also reasonable programs that are funded by earmarks. We shouldn’t think that if we get away earmarks, the government just won’t allocate that money. Instead, the congressmen who pushed for those earmarks will just try to get the money approved through the ordinary legislative process. So any budget that denies those funds will run into tremendous opposition, at least when the earmarks are for sympathetic causes. And you’ll end up with far less than the $16 billion reduction that’s projected.
Update: A related point from Matthew Yglesias.