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Earmarks: Who should decide where the money goes?

Pork. Pet projects. Congressional earmarks.

Those buzzwords have become inseparably linked in a broader conservative assault on government spending, which was the key driver of Minnesota’s and the nation’s legislative upheaval in last month’s election. The messaging worked like a charm.

Now I recommend you brace yourself for a brand-new right-wing spin on the always-contentious process of allocating taxpayer dollars among competing constituencies. Try these phrases on for size:

Unelected bureaucrats. Gangster government. Obamarks.

When you strip elected representatives of the power to advance projects in their districts — usually with broad input from the voters who put them in office — funding choices devolve to the executive branches of state and federal government, which are far more remote from local electorates.

This may promote coordinated planning of major infrastructure investments, but with serious political ramifications, especially in this era of divided government. That’s because the debate over earmarks vs. executive fiat has often been more of a hot-button wedge tactic than one with much real significance for public policy. Estimates of the extent of earmarked federal spending range from 0.5 percent to 2 percent of the total, leaving at least 98 percent of the spending to the preferences of executive branch bureaucrats.

For the moment, President Obama and newly empowered Republican leaders in Congress are riding the same bandwagon for eliminating earmarks, which actually hit their peak when the GOP controlled both the White House and Capitol Hill in the early 2000s. Over the past four years, supposedly free-spending Democrats slashed congressional earmarks in half, even while allowing Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., to lead Fiscal 2010 earmark lists compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense.

So when push comes to shove in meting out federal resources across the nation, it will be interesting to see how long Republicans will cede all those decisions to a Democratic administration. Already there’s a telling crack in the resolve of Tea Party sweetheart Rep. Michele Bachmann, GOP House member from Minnesota.

Bachmann, who has alternately employed and sworn off earmarks, recently opined that specifying highway, bridge and interchange work in particular districts shouldn’t be considered earmarking. “Advocating for transportation projects for one’s district in my mind does not equate to an earmark,” she told the Star Tribune.

Well. As the Church Lady used to say, “Isn’t that convenient?” Let the waffling begin.

In letters to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Bachmann urged funding via the earmark-free federal stimulus program for roads, bridges and transit in her north suburban-to-St. Cloud district. Topping those requests was the long-discussed St. Croix River crossing to replace the Stillwater Lift Bridge — a $670 million project denounced by Taxpayers for Common Sense six years ago, when the price was estimated at just $200 million. The conservative advocacy group said a new bridge was unnecessary, would export economic growth to Wisconsin and spawn congestion on Hwy. 36 all the way to the metro core.

That’s sensible analysis. But I also find myself agreeing with Rep. Bachmann on the broader point that earmarks — or some new name for them; how about “t-marks” (for Tea or transportation)? — foster community control of infrastructure priorities.

Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense will have none of that. These fiscal hawks, who first highlighted Alaska’s doomed Bridge to Nowhere, have heaped scorn on Alaska Republicans Don Young, Ted Stevens and even Sarah Palin (nearly $27 million in earmarks for Wasilla when she was mayor) for their earmarking ways. It rips plenty of Democrats, too. That’s an admirable lack of partisanship in a highly partisan debate.

But I doubt whether that kind of focus on policy alone will stand up long in the heat of legislative wrangling over billions in federal spending. Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the U.S. Senate, signaled some squishiness on earmarks even as he reluctantly joined a move for his caucus to forgo any of them in the next Congress.

“The problem is it doesn’t save any money,” McConnell told CBS’ Bob Schieffer. “There are many members of my conference who have said, ‘I don’t want the president to make all the decisions about how the funds are spent that might be allocated in my state.’ “

For a nifty review of more conservative waffling on earmarks, check this New Republic article.

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/01/2010 - 08:20 am.

    This is an area that is ripe for bipartisan cooperation, because it doesn’t make any difference, very few institutional interests really care about it one way or the other, and it’s vulnerable to demagoguery. Personally, I feel the whole argument is small potatoes.

    The problem really is that the money will then be allocated in a different mechanism to get the same result. It will shove the mechanism further into the darkness. Better they should bluntly attach names to each allocation of funds together with a statement of reasons so the public can see.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/01/2010 - 09:30 am.

    When the Democrats were in charge, this attack on earmarks was a freebie since the media never educates the public well enough to expose the facts of who spends how much money through earmarks and thereby expose (let alone criticize) the demagoguery.

    Snapshot of the message Republicans successfully sold: earmarks are bad, wasteful, etc., Democrats are in charge, therefore Democrats are bad, wasteful, etc…

    Now that the Republicans are in charge of the House, they’ll have to find a way to reinvent earmarks. Otherwise, how will they bring home the bacon?

    But the more important issue is this: earmarked spending is a miniscule portion of the federal budget. The big budget busters when it comes to deficit reduction are: 1, 2, 3, and 4) Inadequate levels of taxation, especially on those with the highest incomes, 5, 6, and 7) Defense Spending, 8 and 9) Medicare Part D (prescription drug program) 10) The rest of Medicare, and 11) Social Security – in that order.

    Unless and until the general public cuts through the GOP-Big Money Propaganda being vomited out by weasel news and picked up by the MSM (because if the weasel is screaming so loud, we have to cover it too, but we can never, never, never, point out that the weasel is propagandizing an issue), we will never address the deficit in any meaningful way.

    Meanwhile, the day may come sooner than we think, when we will have borrowed so much money from China, all to protect our wealthiest citizens from having to pay taxes, that in response to our objections to their increasingly aggressive trade policies and belligerent actions toward their neighbors, especially Japan, they’ll call the note, so to speak and the citizens of the US, (rich and poor alike) will be forced to hand them the keys.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/01/2010 - 11:11 am.

    “Estimates of the extent of earmarked federal spending range from 0.5 percent to 2 percent of the total…”

    A few hundred billion here, a few hundred there and pretty soon we’re talking *real* money, eh Conrad?

    I’ve got a question Conrad, and it’s sincere.

    With the exception of defense (which ironically enough is one of the few legitimate areas the federal government has a vested responsibility for), is there *anything*, anything at all that leftists will not demand more money for?

    If politicians want federal money, let them craft a bill and put it through on it’s own merits. Let Sen. Daniel Inouye and Sen. John Kerry stand on the floor of the House of Representatives and explain why it is in the national interest to spend $18,900,000 to build the “Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate”.

    Let Dianne Feinstein explain why the country will crumble unless we fund a “2010 Lawn Mower Exchange Program” and an “eco-friendly kitchen” project as part of a $43,650,000 boondoggle bill from the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee.

    Or maybe Mr. deFiebre might care to take a “non-partisan” tilt at it himself.

    Personally, I don’t know how anyone can put a price on earmarks. The utter crap we are being fleeced for is buried so deep in multi-billion omnibus spending bills the only time some of this cash ever sees daylight is the moments it spends between a politicians hand and his crony’s pocket.

  4. Submitted by John Olson on 12/01/2010 - 08:40 pm.

    Mr. Swift, if you are going to just do your usual “leftist” rant, shall we talk about the late Senator Ted Stevens (“Uncle Ted”) and the semi-load of pork he brought to Alaska? That noted leftist, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama is quoted in his own press release of May 17, 2009 as follows:

    “The earmark process is ripe for reform, and I have voted in favor of a moratorium on earmarks until that reform is implemented. Unfortunately, a majority of my colleagues oppose such a measure. I remain very uneasy about this process, but, so long as the current system is in place, I have an obligation to ensure that the people of Alabama see a fair share of their tax dollars invested in their state. Absent someone fighting for these projects, the funding would likely be directed to other states.”

    If this was a Democrat making a statement like this, you would be all over it like a cheap coat. Also notice that he uses the term “colleagues” when he could have just as easily used the term “Democrats.” He didn’t. He used the term “moratorium.” That means not getting rid of it, just suspending it.

    So what kind of pork did Senator Sessions bring home? Here’s a couple of morsels:

    -PROJECT: Prevention and Treatment of Obesity Initiative AMOUNT: $150,000 LOCATION: Auburn, Alabama RECIPIENT: Auburn University EXPLANATION: This interdisciplinary, research-based approach to the development of effective prevention and intervention programs will lead to comprehensive, population-based interventions in west Alabama and east Mississippi. Interventions will be implemented through cooperative relationships with county health departments, schools, university extension offices, and communities. Research will be conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of specific components of the interventions, resulting in interventions that are culturally relevant and individualized to meet the needs of communities. The model interventions will include a focus on education, physical activity and exercise, nutrition, and healthy lifestyles.

    Or this:

    – PROJECT: The Enhancements in Training for High-Growth Industry program AMOUNT: $150,000 LOCATION: Jasper , Alabama RECIPIENT: Bevill State Community College EXPLANATION: This project will focus on increasing capacity and quality in selected Bevill State career technical degree and certificate programs that are experiencing or are poised to experience an increase in available career opportunities in the next five to 10 years in Alabama. Careers in these industries are expected to grow with the opening of Interstate 22 to the Birmingham city limits, which will provide the first interstate through the heart of west central Alabama.

    This is just a sampling. Sen. Sessions is about as conservative as one can get, with the probable exception of Sen. DeMint.

    For what it is worth Mr. Swift, I’d just as soon see ALL of the earmarks gone. Period. No moratoriums, no task forces, no study groups. Get rid of the earmarks and force these entities to come to Washington and defend their proposals to have taxpayers fund whatever project they are proposing.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/01/2010 - 09:27 pm.

    The Republican leaders in the House have now gone a step further and called on the president to veto any bill that contains even a single earmark. Their plans for the other 99.5% of the budget, however, remain obscure.

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