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Opening Arguments

It's the $15.5 trillion that's bogus

Sen. Lugar has been making this point for years, but it sounds especially tone deaf after all the brouhaha over the unsustainable federal debt:

Indiana Senator Richard Lugar says calls for banning congressional earmarks are "a bogus issue."

Lugar's Republican primary challenger Richard Mourdock has slammed Lugar for supporting earmarks, most recently in a vote earlier this month. Lugar argues killing earmarks wouldn't save taxpayers a penny -- he says the money would still get spent, but with executive branch "bureaucrats" deciding how, instead of members of Congress.

Lugar is essentially right on his central claim, as this fact-checking by PolitiFact established:

Joshua Gordon, policy director at the Concord Coalition, a group that favors balanced budgets and reducing the national debt, calls Lugar's statement "accurate."

"The moratoriums would not save any money," Gordon said. "They just change who is allowed to direct where money is spent."

Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, agrees that Lugar is right, though he adds that the existence of earmarks increases the upward pressure on federal spending indirectly, since lawmakers "know they need to support the relevant powers on the spending committees in order to have their earmarks approved."

But Mitchell is also right when he calls earmarks "a gateway drug" that "seduces members into treating the federal budget as a good thing that can be milked for home-state/district projects." And while under the current budget process, money not directed to a specific place by Congress will just be assigned somewhere else by the executive branch, we don't have to use the current budget process. The answer, then, is to change the budget process so that when an earmark is eliminated, spending goes down by that much. Given our nearly $15.5 trillion debt that grows by $4 billion a day, you'd think somebody would have figured that out by now.