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Earmarks: Who Should Decide Where the Money Goes?

November 24, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

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 this 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 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.

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  • Paul Conklin says:

    November 30, 2010 at 10:06 am

    I think Congress should set priorities, and a competitive grant programs should distribute money to those who best meet those priorities. 

    One of my biggest problems with earmarks is that Congress basically uses them to bribe each other to vote for bill they are otherwise not to keen on, or that they would vote for anyway, but know if they hold out then can get a gimmee for their district.  It’s not a huge amount of money in terms of total federal spending, but it corrupts the system.  Compromise should be based on policy considerations, not bribery.

  • Dean Hahn-Carlson says:

    November 30, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    I firmly believe that earmarks should go.  If a legislator believes they have a legitimate, and strongly backed, use of public funds, then they should advance a bill for that specific purpose not hide behind a totally unrelated bill.  Earmarks are on of the many barriers to transparency and accountability in legislation.  Eliminating earmarks doesn’t leave all decision-making to the President—it simply ensures that each proposed expenditure is evaluated on its own merits.