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8th District after Oberstar: Where will all the pork go?

Rep. Jim Oberstar
Rep. Jim Oberstar

Whether you’re for earmarks, against them, or -- god forbid -- somewhere in-between, we can all agree on one thing: Jim Oberstar’s defeat in the 8th District will mean less federal money for Minnesota.

That’s not just because 8th District victor Chip Cravaack is less-than inclined to pursue pork dollars; it’s because Oberstar was really good at it. There is one key indicator of earmark prowess: how much a representative brings in on their own -- solo earmarks obtained without the help of co-sponsors.

Oberstar brought home $22 million in earmark money on his own during fiscal years 2008-2010. Here’s how he ranked among his House colleagues in the Minnesota delegation for fiscal years 2008-2010:

Most of that money came out of transportation bills -- no surprise given his chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee -- but he was also adept at pulling money from areas where he had less pull. Here’s a breakdown of the earmark money he secured by bill for FY 2008-2010

Also significant is the earmark money a representative brings in with the help of co-sponsors, and Oberstar was a leader in this area as well. Most notably, he helped wrangle $53.9 million for the NorthStar Commuter Rail. All told he collaborated to win $265 million in earmark money for Minnesota and the region from fiscal year 2008-2010.

The argument against earmarks was pretty well summarized by candidate Cravaack in his answer to a Minnesota Newspaper Association survey in October:

“I do not support congressional earmarks. They have become the poster child of Washington’s culture of wasteful spending and have been linked to corruption and scandal. Funding should be rewarded based on the merit of a project, not seniority or party. This is the only way to make sure that the government is meeting their obligations fairly. Earmark reform such as this will prevent projects such as the infamous ‘Bridge to Nowhere.’”

Over at the Minnesota Brown blog, Iron Range historian Jeff Manuel provides a more nuanced and region-specific take on the pork tradition Oberstar honored for his district and his state:

“On a national level, earmarks have been the most significant vehicle for the federal government to put money into mining regions like the Iron Range that are challenged by globalization and deindustrialization.

“This isn’t just an Iron Range story. In Pennsylvania’s declining anthracite coal mining region ... federal earmarks were the most important source of federal money for economic development. Democratic and Republican congressmen from the anthracite region ‘were masters at channeling federal dollars -- for whatever purposes -- into their districts.’

“So let’s remember that all that pork -- love it or hate it -- was America’s version of an industrial policy.”

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Comments (6)

We truly have no chance if we are lamenting the loss of pork in the 8th district. I'll ask the obvious - what if every district in the U.S. felt the same way? Why should Minnesota's 8th district be any more deserving than some random Kentucky location? We are going bankrupt and all we can say is, "...cut his, but you better not cut mine...."

I'm not a fan of earmarks. But I'm less of a fan of those who demand that they be eliminated because doing so will cut spending. Eliminating earmarks absolutely doesn't reduce spending. All it does is change the place where the spending decision is made from the legislative to the executive branch. The dispute is over who gets to make the decision.

Suppose, example, that Congress passes an appropriation for $100.00. The impact on the deficit is the same whether $90 is appropriated with $10 of that earmarked for something or if $90 is appropriated without earmarks at all. In other words, you can cut spending and keep earmarks and eliminate earmarks without cutting spending. The two are unrelated. All an earmark does is allocate part of the funds being appropriated.

The irony here is unmistakable: The impact of what Congressman-elect Cravaack is saying will be to transfer power from Congress to the White House at the precise time the GOP would be leading the majority in the House of Representatives. Does anyone really think they will cede that power at the precise moment they get to exercise it? In other words, there's simply no reason to take what Chip Cravaack said seriously and lots of reasons to be disappointed that he said it. That has to make you wonder why anyone is spending any time on any of this.

Totally agree TJ. Also, I wonder what good the pork really did in the long term. Unemployment is woefully high, tourism is hurting, schools are closing because of declining population...once again throwing money at a problem doesn't go to the root to fix anything.

TJ & Becca

The only thing making Minnesota's 8th more deserving is that without the pork Oberstar brought to the table, tghe 8th would resemble eastern Kentucky. Maybe the district will grow economically without, but it will be ugly until it stabilizes. If ever.

The simple fact is that it is time people begin to learn to operate on their own power. The government is not a business and a lot of this stuff they're into should be turned back over to private sector. Time to let the market drive itself. If you can't handle that, maybe your in the wrong country.

Earmarks serve a very important purpose. They allow long-term decisions to be adjusted. I am most familiar with transportation so I'll talk about that. We get a new federal transportation bill about every seven years if we're lucky. The last two have been delayed at least a year or too. That's a very long time over which conditions can change drastically. Earmarks allow Congress to send money to fulfill needs that weren't anticipated when the last big spending bill was passed. It is a tool to do short-term adjustments to long-term bills. They provide some of the nimbleness Congress needs to act effectively.

Now, like anything else, earmarks can be abused. But they are an important policy tool which should be retained.