Numbers Count

Peter R. Orszag, Director

My blog post this morning prompted some questions from people who are comparing the Administration’s 2010 earmarks count with data released last month by the group Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS).  TCS does good work and is a respected outside voice. In this earmarks’ count, however, its analysis is a bit off.
Here’s an example of what I mean. When TCS released its 2010 scorecard in February, it showed earmarks as basically flat from 2009 to 2010. To reach that assessment, TCS counted funding for C-17 aircraft in the Defense appropriations bill as a $2.5 billion earmark. Neither the Administration nor Congress considers this funding an earmark. The Department of Defense developed the C-17 according to merit-based, competitive allocation processes to meet the Air Force’s strategic airlift requirements, rather than an earmark in the funding bill. 
And – last year – TCS agreed. It did not count the nearly $2.2 billion allocated for the C-17 in its earmarks count for the Fiscal Year 2009 Supplemental funding bill, which is part of the group’s scorecard.  In 2010, however, TCS flipped its approach and did count the $2.5 billion as earmarked spending. If TCS were consistent in both 2009 and 2010, its data would show an earmarks decrease instead of a statistical flat line for 2010 (even without figuring the Supplemental in its counts).
Another technical difference is found in the Army Corps’ funding.  In 2009, Congress earmarked project funding for the Army Corps in the Operations and Maintenance and the Mississippi River & Tributaries accounts.  In 2010, by contrast, President Obama applied a merit-based priority assessment system to allocate Army Corps’ project funds – reducing both the number and value of earmarks in the Corps’ accounts. 
Given this change, TCS altered its numbers to make an apples-to-apples comparison, removing the O&M and MR&T funds from both 2009 and 2010. The problem with this approach is that a merit-based approach was not used in 2009, and Congress earmarked these funds in 2009.  That reduction in earmarks in 2010 should count, as the old ways of Washington pork-barrel spending were replaced with merit-based, priority-centered investments.
Just for the sake of argument, though, we did the analysis to include the number and value of these two accounts to the 2010 Administration data, as if they were earmarks (even though they are not).  Even with this adjustment, earmarks would be down in number by more than 10 percent, and in value by more than 12 percent. 
No matter how one looks at the data, the trend is clear that earmarks are down.  Congress is heeding the President’s call to cut wasteful, duplicative spending.

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