Government Bytes

Blog 

Earmarks Vs. What Paul Ryan Would Spend

by Dan Barrett / /

Last week, the Washington Post hit Congressman and GOP Vice Presidential Nominee Paul Ryan (R-WI) for heavily supported earmarks for his district while being touted by Republicans as a fiscal hawk. There are two key assumptions behind the Post’s piece that deserve examination.*

Assumption #1: Earmarks Are Spending

Technically, yes. During the legislative and appropriations process, federal legislators tack on special projects or actions to spending bills as amendments. However, the funding source of earmarks is, logically, within the department, agency, or other account dedicated for those specific purposes. For example, if I (a Congressman in this case) wanted to build a new Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program building, I would get a grant from the Department of Agriculture for my district and then allocate assets from the Department of Health and Human Services as support. It would be easy for me because all I have to do is add an amendment to a bill that is on track to become law.

So, while there seems to be a new line-item in one or more budgets, an earmark essentially takes a piece of the spending pie that already exists to do something that I want, when I want it. In and of themselves, earmarks do not increase spending but they represent Congressionally-directed spending rather than bureaucratically-directed spending.

While this practice has raised questions about the budget process, the single biggest of most lawmakers is their ability to introduce legislation that can be enacted into law. This is where real federal spending comes from. Which leads us to...

Assumption #2: Paul Ryan is a Fiscal Hawk

Depends on your timeline. While the term fiscal hawk can mean different things to different people, Ryan has proposed pro-spending agendas at times. The National Taxpayers Union Foundation's (NTUF) BillTally project provides unique insight into the fiscal agenda of Congress by determining the cost of every piece of legislation introduced into Congress, creating the most complete picture of Washington's spending habits. In short, BillTally reveals what Congressmen and Senators would do if given the keys to the federal budget. As seen below, Congressman Ryan has indeed proposed both spending increase as well as decrease agendas throughout his career, the latter of which would fit many people's description of a “fiscal hawk”.

Congressman Paul Ryan's Proposed Spending
(in billions of dollars)
Congress
Increase
Decrease
Net
106
$25.7
($22.6)
$3.0
107
$35.8
($1.0)
$34.8
108
$20.3
($0.02)
$20.3
109
$16.5
($0.003)
$16.5
110
$4.8
($1.7)
$3.1
111
$0.7
($122.2)
($121.6)
112
$0.07
($40.3)
($40.3)
Note: Totals may not add due to rounding.
Source: NTUF BillTally System

So far this Congress, the Congressman would cut $40 billion from the federal budget. Out of the five bills that the Congressman has either sponsored or cosponsored, one would increase and four would decrease spending; two would repeal the Affordable Care Act but one would replace it with other new health care initiatives that would decrease the savings of an outright repeal. A breakdown of the bills he supports that NTUF has been able to score thus far can be accessed here.

During Ryan’s first five terms, his net spending agenda ranged from $3 to $34.7 billion in spending hikes. After the Democratic takeover of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009 (111th Congress), Congressman Ryan proposed a net agenda to cut spending by $121.6 billion.

Congressman Paul Ryan's Proposed Spending Compared to Average Party Agendas (Net)
(in billions of dollars)
Congress
Congressman Ryan
House Democrats
House Republicans
106
$3.0
$33.9
($4.6)
107
$34.8
$262.4
$19.8
108
$20.3
$401.6
$30.7
109
$16.5
$547.4
$11.6
110
$3.1
$547.0
$6.8
111
($121.6)
$500.2
($45.3)
112
($40.3)
$496.8
($130.2)
Note: Totals may not add due to rounding.
Source: NTUF BillTally System

Figures for the 112th Congress only reflect the First Session BillTally Report.

* Note: This is not a defense of earmarks, only a clarification of their budgetary impact. It is not intended to endorse or otherwise influence the passage of legislation or question the fitness of any official to serve.