Remember That Ban On Earmarks? Apparently, Some Congressmen Don’t.
The much celebrated ban on earmarks isn't stopping Congressmen from trying to earmark.
After the Republicans gained control of the House last November, one of the first things they did was a pass a ban on so-called earmarks, which is the practice by which individual members of Congress put funding for specific projects in spending bills. It was touted at the time as an example of how the GOP was going to be tough on spending when the new Congress convened in January. However, as I noted at the time, the so-called “war on earmarks” was mostly just pointless symbolism considering that spending authorized via earmarks accounts for an infinitesimally small part of the Federal Budget. Additionally, banning earmarks raises serious questions about the balance of power between the Executive and Legislative Branches since the debate is really just over who gets to decide how the money is spent.
Even after passing the ban, though, it quickly became clear that anti-earmark Republicans really didn’t want to give up the ability to direct spending toward their district, and toward politically favored recipients. Jon Kyl was slipping earmarks into bills within days after having voted for a Senate earmark ban, for example. Other Republicans were looked for ways to call their pieces of legislative language something other than an earmark, while others just followed the practice of doing it secretly. As today’s Washington Post reports, earmarks may be banned, but that hasn’t stopped Members of Congress from trying to direct spending anyway:
Members of the House and the Senate attempted to pack hundreds of special spending provisions into at least 10 bills in the summer and fall, less than a year after congressional leaders declared a moratorium on earmarks, congressional records show.
The moratorium, announced last November in the House and in February in the Senate, is a verbal commitment by the Republican leadership to prohibit lawmakers from directing federal funds to handpicked projects and groups in their districts. Lawmakers have tried to get around the moratorium by promising to allow other groups to compete for the funds. But the legislative language is so narrowly tailored that critics consider the practice to be earmarking by another name.
The efforts to resurrect spending on pet projects reveal the tenuous nature of current reform efforts. Two senators have publicly called out their colleagues and will introduce legislation Wednesday that would ban earmarking with the force of law.
“I have heard too many appropriators say informally that they are very hopeful that we can get back to earmarking in the future with few restrictions,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is co-authoring the bill with Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.). “That has come out of the mouths of Democrats and Republicans.”
Most of the spending bills — which will determine the nation’s priorities for defense, transportation, water and other needs — are still being debated, so it is unclear how many special provisions will survive. Some that have been proposed by one committee have already eliminated by another.
Even as some lawmakers attempt to permanently ban earmarks, others are trying to revive them in certain contexts.
This month, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) wrote to House leaders asking that some flood-protection earmarks be restored, saying her project has been publicly vetted and her constituents’ safety is put at risk by flood-prone rivers around Sacramento. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a critic of earmarks, last year began calling for Congress to have a role again in directing money for road and highway projects in the transportation bill, provided that the process is “open and transparent.”
Despite recurrent calls to crack down on earmarks, the practice had reached a peak before the moratorium. The Congressional Research Service found that earmark spending nearly tripled over a 15-year period, to $31.9 billion in 2010, the year before the ban.
One of the first efforts this year to sidestep the ban came in May, when the House Armed Services Committee crafted the National Defense Authorization Act. Lawmakers added 111 amendments totaling more than $650 million in special projects for their districts. Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) set aside $1 billion in a special fund that was used for member-directed projects. Lawmakers said the projects were not earmarks and promised to create a competitive process for the money.
But 59 of the 111 amendments contained language nearly identical to that used to describe previous earmarks, according to an analysis by the earmark watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.
Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), who previously secured more than $2 million in earmarks for a “Corrosion Engineering Education Initiative” at the University of Akron, added $33 million to the authorization bill this year for “Corrosion Protection Projects.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) added $5 million for “night vision advanced technology.” He secured a $2.4 million earmark in 2010 for the same technology, to be developed by a company founded by his uncle, who sold the company in the 1990s.
The defense authorization bill was passed by the House, but Sutton’s and Hunter’s efforts were shot down, along with the other amendments, when the issue got to the Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee.
Subcommittee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) honored the moratorium and refused to allow any special provisions. But earmark critics such as McCaskill say the episode highlights how the moratorium rises and falls with the whim of each chairman.
“One way you can look at it is you can say people are trying to make an end run around the rules any way they can,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. “But on the flip side, you can say that they did get slapped down. Maybe it came out of indignation. ‘If I can’t play the earmarks game, you shouldn’t be able to either.’ But the rules held.”
Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said the lawmaker does not consider his amendment to be an earmark because the money would have been awarded based on merit. He said Hunter is hopeful that the funding will come through in the next few weeks when the House and the Senate meet in conference to hammer out a final version of the defense authorization bill. “Mr. Hunter made the request because he feels very strongly about the technology,” Kasper said.
This isn’t really all the surprising, of course. When there’s hundreds of millions of dollars in highway, or agriculture, or Dept. of Interior funding being authorized by Congress, there are going to be plenty of Congressmen who will have lobbyists and constituents whispering in their ear telling them that this project, or that project, deserves to be funded because it would be good for the District, not to mention the Congressperson’s political future. It’s not surprising that Members of Congress are going to take an interest in how the money that they’re voting to authorize is spent, and it’s far easier to direct that spending via legislation than to try to convince some bureaucrat at the Department of Commerce that your district’s project deserves funding over something else. Moreover, as I’ve argued before, it strikes me that it’s better that these issues get decided on the record by Members of Congress than by faceless people in the Executive Branch who only answer to the President:
if Congress weren’t earmarking the appropriations bills, then all of the decisions about where the money would go would be left to the Executive Branch. It’s fairly easy to see what would happen then. The allocation of money by the Executive Branch would become a bargaining tool by which the President would influence Congressmen and Senators to support legislation favored by the White House. Giving the White House power to decide where the money allocated to, say, the Transportation Department goes won’t reduce the budget of the Transportation Department, it will just make the Presidency more powerful. Personally, I don’t consider that a good thing.
So, on some level it doesn’t really bother me that Congressmen and Senators are trying to find ways to get around the earmarking ban. Of all the problems on Capitol Hill, the fact that some money gets sent to Montana or wherever isn’t really at the top of my priority list. Except for one thing. If you’ve got people railing against earmarks on the House and Senate Floor, and on cable, and then trying to slip them through the legislative process behind the public’s back, you’re talking hypocrisy. Rather than banning earmarks, the reform I would advocate would be complete and open transparency. Each earmark that a Senator or Congressman requests should be available publicly, not six months after the bill passes but as soon as the request is made. Then the voters can decide how to proceed. Pretending to be a fiscal conservative by pushing a phony war on earmarks and then engaging in the practice anyway is pretty sleazy, though.