Earmarks: Congress hides money requests behind narrowed definition

Parents teach their children not to make promises they cannot — or will not — keep. In the matter of earmarks, more members of Congress should have listened to their parents.

Earmarks represent power. Members of Congress can direct how money drawn from the U.S. Treasury can be spent. For example, if a representative or senator wants to keep open a factory in his or her district that makes defense-related equipment, he or she can insert an earmark into the federal budget designating money for that use. Then he or she can claim credit for bringing that money into the district. There had been no requirement that an earmark be identified with a member of Congress. It could be a secret. So earmarks represented both power and secrecy, a democratically unhealthy combination.

Politicians like power and secrecy, especially when money is involved. So they have resisted mightily transparency in earmarks — revealing who sponsored what amount of money for what project benefiting whom. Transparency reduces power.

The use of earmarks is growing. In 2005, about 15,000 earmarks representing $47 billion went into the federal budget. CNN reported today that about 32,000 earmarks are pending in the House.

After the midterm elections, the Democratically controlled Congress promised it would address earmark reform. It did … sort of.

In January, the House passed rules to require that both the spending projects and their sponsors be disclosed on the Internet at least 48 hours before they are considered on the floor. That means members of Congress would be required to justify the public need for the expenditures and certify that the members would not benefit financially from them, says a Cato Institute article. The Senate passed a similar measure.

Problem solved. Well, sort of.

Remember back in March when, according to The New York times, “the House Appropriations Committee approved a $124 billion emergency war-spending package that included money for the space center, the spinach growers and the peanut farmers [and] declared the bill to be free of any earmarks”?

That’s because an earmark wasn’t an earmark anymore. Congress’ new “rules” had narrowed the definition, allowing it to sidestep its faint-hearted grasp at transparency. Sayeth The Times:

Democrats pointed to the new rule, which defined ”Congressional earmark” as any expenditure requested by a lawmaker, intended for a specific state, district or ”entity,” and outside the usual administrative process. None of the three allocations qualify as an earmark, Democrats said. Two could apply to more than one district. And the space center money, they said, will go to NASA.

According to The Times: “Steve Ellis, a vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said excluding such items ‘makes a mockery” of the new rule. ‘Spinach by any other name still tastes like an earmark.'”

CNN’s Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston reported today on their survey of House members for information about earmarks. They found:

• Only 31 of 435 members of the House provided information on earmark requests.
• 68 declined to provide requests; 329 didn’t return calls or provide requests.

Their story contains a link through which voters can find out if their representatives provided lists of earmark requests.

Here’s one attitude about the survey:

“As long as we are not required to release them, we’re not going to,” said Dan Turner, an aide to Rep. Jim McCrery, R-Louisiana. [emphasis added]

So much for transparency. So much for being straight with voters.

On the other hand, Democratic leader Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois, released a list of his earmark requests on Monday. Thank you, sir. But … given how the January “rules” revision altered the definition of earmark, how does one how complete Rep. Emanuel’s list is?

Several groups have sought to have legislators sign an “Earmark Transparency Pledge.” This joint effort by the Sunlight Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, OMB Watch and Taxpayers for Common Sense needs more public support. (Bill Allison at Sunlight writes compellingly and knowledgeably about earmarks for those interested.)

I’ve written to my congressman and sent him a copy of the pledge. I’ll let you know how he replies.

Meanwhile, our elected representatives continue to defy a public cry for more accountability for their actions. Voters signaled a desire for significant ethical reform in November.

The Democrats pitched their 2006 mid-term elections bid for control of both chambers of Congress on rules reform and transparency.

Either they are too stupid to recognize the voters’ desire — or they made promises they had no intention of keeping.

xpost: 5th Estate

Categories: Politics/Law/Government

Tagged as:

7 replies »

  1. Thanks. We’ve both beaten the GOP silly for the last few years, and for good reason. It’s important, in this neck of the woods, to hold ALL public servants accountable to the same set of ethics. Great analysis, and let me know how your rep replies. I can always use a good laugh….

  2. I like so many Americans who cherished civil liberty hoped against hope the tidal wave of attitude change that resulted in Democrats regaining control of both chambers, Would consequence a shift in the mind set of those in leadership post’s. It did not, and the backlash will be the ability of who ever step’s up as the protest candidate in the next Presidential election to swing just enough votes to ensure a Republican victory.

  3. Doc,

    Another fantastic piece of work, and further grist for the mill on the issue of abandoning the two-party concept. The current system is too entrenched in money, power, and access to both, and even the most idealistic of the new Dems is far too vulnerable to being shredded and ground in the system like those schoolkids in “Pink Floyd: The Wall.”

  4. You know, Denny, I read this and I kept thinking about Ted Stevens’ $120 million bridge to Terabithia or wherever the hell it was those 12 people were going.

    And then I thought about Ev Dirksen’s famous observation: “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.”

    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose…..

    Great piece.

  5. You know how you keep hearing that the Pentagon is getting more money from Congress than they’re asking for? Well, apparently a signficant portion of it is earmarks, and the Pentagon doesn’t even want them because a) they can run counter to the DoD’s funding priorities and b) they are funded outside the DoD’s oversight and quality procedures. (source)

  6. I just want to point out that not all earmarks are bad. I’m biased, because our lab is mostly funded by earmarks. But we actually do some useful things with the money we get. We have the first proton treatment center for radiotherapy and now there are several more popping up in the US and in Europe based on our success. That was mostly funded by earmarks. We’ve also done a lot of useful research for NASA on the effects of low dose radiation on neurodegeneration, immunity, behavior, and just about everything else. Earmarks.

    But despit all this, right now, we have no idea if we’ll even exist come October becuase of all thees political games Washington is playing.

    I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place on this one. I know there’s abuse. But I also know there’s good work out there because of this funding mechanism.

    On the flip side, funding to research in general is hurting. So, because we get this earmark, we seem to be excluded to some extent from other funding sources. Which makes establishing myself as an independent investigator somewhat difficult as well. But that’s a whole ‘nother argument. 🙂

  7. Michael,

    I appreciate your situation. I live in a rural area were all municipal services are primarily supported by property taxes. Yet, as commercial and industrial activity whose tax income is critical to municipal budgets flees our area, us remaining taxpayers can’t afford such things as equipment replacement for police cruisers, fire engines and the like.

    We have a representative system of government in the U.S. so that we can elect someone to go to D.C. to get a needed piece of the federal pie to help us afford such things.

    In that sense, an earmarking system is sound. But when that system became secretive, it became abused.

    I’m all for keeping earmarks … as long as every last one has attached to it three things: the sponsor, the receipient and the argument for it.

    I hope you keep your funding. I’ll bet on a cost-benefit basis, you beat the famed “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska.