A new kind of congressional earmark: no spending

Congress giving up on the idea of growth, prompting the dawn of a new era of contraction in the economy.

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U.S. Capitol Building

Congress giving up on the idea of growth, prompting the dawn of a new era of contraction in the economy.

There are many ways to look at America’s shift into the Era of Contraction. Budget numbers tell part of the story. Words of elected leaders tell yet another. Add to that, the stories of real discontent told by ordinary people and reflected by both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

We can also look for metaphors; figures of speech that use an image, a story or a tangible thing to convey the idea that something huge has changed in our society.

I think of congressional earmarks as one such metaphor. Just last year, for example, earmarks were a line in the budget to fund a project or direct an agency action, a special prerogative for members of Congress. It was a document that reflected “growth.” In fiscal year 2010 there was $16 billion added to the budget through 2,400 congressional earmarks. The Interior budget had 737 such budget items, totaling $710 million.

But everything changed when first the House and then the Senate essentially ended by the practice. It was metaphor politics; an image so powerful that even senators who defended the practice had to relent.

Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye told The Washington Post: “Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law.”

Earmarks became a metaphor for government waste even though the numbers, compared to the rest of the budget, were less than 2 percent of spending. Remember more than two-thirds of the U.S. budget goes to four program areas: Defense, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and interest on the debt.

The metaphor was never exactly true, yet it stuck, and it became a central belief for all those who wanted federal spending to shrink. Earmarks were the problem, not the spending on programs that we want such as our retirement, our Social Security, our Medicare ... knowing full well that younger Americans will never get such deals.

But if earmarks were once a metaphor for easy spending, consider what congressional amendments now tell us. Amendments to the budget are still considered and adopted by the appropriations committees only now the language is about “no” and “none.”

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement, administer, or enforce the rule entitled, 'National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants From the Portland Cement Manufacturing Industry' ...” says one earmark to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget in the House. Another says “none of the funds” can be used to report information to the Justice Department regarding the sale of multiple rifles or shotguns to the same person. 

The content of those amendments reflect the ideology of the sponsors — and the budget is seen as one route to the implementation of those proposals (that is, if either the Republican or the Democrats ever find enough votes to actually pass a budget. But that’s another story.)

But as a metaphor, these types of amendments are the story about how the United States has given up on growth, accepting shrinkage of government and government jobs as the only course forward. Or sort of.

While the spending bills in Congress are essentially promising contraction, the actual proposals to cut spending assume growth, healthy growth at that. The economists at the Congressional Budget Office project (read this: your guess is just as likely) a growth rate of 4.4 percent in 2014 and a 5 percent growth rate in 2015.

But in order to get that kind of growth, the economy (as we continue to cut jobs, especially government jobs) would have to take off with lots of spending and lots of new jobs. That’s not going to happen. The economy will shrink — and government cuts will only make that trend worse.

The Census Bureau reported this month that median household income fell to $49, 445, the lowest earnings number in a decade. And at the same time, the poverty rate jumped to 15 percent, the highest rate in 17 years.

That data, of course, is looking backwards. It’s already occurred. But metaphors, like those in the appropriations bill, reflect what will be. In other words, the Era of Contraction is just beginning.


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