CongressLine by The Earmark Reality

This is earmark season in Washington, DC, and perhaps I have been here too long, because while I wince at many of the earmarks, I have come to accept them as an inherent part of our legislative and public policy making system, albeit a cumbersome and inefficient part.

The President currently has on his desk a bill that is billed as a “landmark reform” on lobbying and earmarks. While this bill (S. 1) does make some changes to the process, no legislation really can ever fully reform it, as the earmark lies at the very heart of our entire system. It is a very difficult, perhaps even impossible thing to reform. I will examine the bill before the President next month. (You may want to check out some of my previous articles on earmarks – Part 1 and Part 2, published in 2006.)

An earmark is the specific direction of funding for a specific project within the appropriations or authorization bill by an individual member. It is not included in the actual bill itself but rather in the Committee or Conference Report that accompanies the bill.

Normally, money is appropriated to specific programs and it is up to the agency or department to have a process for determining any specific project to get funding. For example, the National Science Foundation runs the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. There is appropriation for the National Science Foundation specifically for space research and the agency apportions this money according to its normal procedure of prioritization. Well, the observatory is now on the short end of the prioritization list and may have to close; there are other newer space research programs that have more merit (according to the prioritization process). This would be a perfect opportunity for a Congressional earmark to keep the observatory funded (too bad the Puerto Rico delegate to Congress doesn’t have a vote on the floor of the House).

The Congressional earmark is simply Congress’ way of inserting their priorities into the process of allocating money to specific projects. Any Congressperson will tell you, that this is their job, in part, and what they were elected to do. The job of Congress is to provide oversight, to create law (with Presidential approval) and to appropriate money.

In some cases, earmarking really is altruistic and valid; perhaps the Arecibo Observatory needs to continue. But in some cases some earmarks just doesn’t look that good. One can always ask how a Congressperson came up with a new priority. Was it a grassroots constituent effort of letter writing to the Congressperson? Perhaps a vote taken at a Town Hall meeting? Maybe it was a Mayor or City Council who asked for the project? Maybe a lobbyist, a cousin, son, daughter, friend, or old business associate suggested it? Maybe the project is near their home and they know first hand about the need? Perhaps it is a topic of personal interest to the member?

It is these questions and their motives that create some of the controversy surrounding earmarks. Another factor is the process by which the earmarks are proposed. The new legislation attempts to deal with some of these factors. For one, the Congressperson can no longer propose an earmark that will benefit them or anyone in their family. This seems kind of an obvious improvement and one wonders why this wasn’t the case to begin with. The second improvement is a change in the process on how earmarks are inserted into legislation. Previously they were added almost secretly at the last minute. Now they must be clearly outlined before the vote.

The raison d’être for earmarks came to mind earlier this summer when the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed. Bridges are popular things for Congress to earmark. This bridge was rated as being in a very low state of repair, but the process for replacing it apparently hadn’t gotten around to prioritizing it to be replaced. One might argue, this would have been a good opportunity to prove the earmark process really could work. Apparently no one brought the state of the bridge to the attention of a Congressperson beforehand. Why would they? The City of Minneapolis could have written their Senators, although they then might have had to prioritize their other earmark requests. Earmarks are normally not inserted to fix, but to grow, enhance or improve. A traffic-clogged road is widened. A new research center is built. A historic building is rehabilitated. That is the nature of earmarks, not fixing a bridge that didn’t appear to be broken.

The internal prioritization process in the case of the bridge was a state process, but most of the money for fixing bridges comes from the Federal government. Earmarks are frequently inserted to direct this money to a specific project. The Alaska delegation wanted a bridge to a sparsely populated island built a few years ago, the so-called “bridge to nowhere.” In a rare case of uproar having an effect on an earmark, the bridge to nowhere did not make it into the bill, but how about that I-35W Bridge? The bridge to St Paul or Minneapolis is hardly nowhere, and it was in poor shape. Why didn’t it get earmarked for replacement?

The answer is pretty simple. Earmarks are not designed to really be a check in the prioritization process or even a real step in the public policy making process. There are a lot of troublesome bridges and if every Congressman earmarked every poor bridge in their constituency, we would run out of money and there would be nothing left for “real” earmarks. It is sort of like fixing the sewer system in your town; it is not glamorous and as long as sewage isn’t in your basement, who cares? Earmarks need to have panache or at least some resemblance of public promotional value. Most earmarks do not assist the prioritization process, they just trump the process since many of the projects were not even being considered in the first place.

Senators and Congresspersons loudly publicize most earmarks after the fact. Earmarks are normally not dreamed up by an individual Senator or Congressperson, but are requested by some savvy community group, university or most frequently, a city or county. The Federal agency may tell them “no,” so the group then moves on and tries to secure the earmark from their Congressperson. The difficulty is that the Congressperson doesn’t really have any incentive to say “no,” so the earmarks continue.

Some have argued that an earmark is really not that far away from the old 19th century process of buying drinks in the taverns to get people to vote for a particular candidate. But I doubt that a Bee Research Center or a widened freeway really generates that many votes. The earmark is merely normal constituent service work on the part of the Congressperson or Senator.

Procedures to take the possible corruption out of the earmark process are the point of the new bill sitting on the President’s desk. No doubt there will be more legislating on this issue. It has always sort of puzzled me about the past secrecy of these things. Part of the reason is that earmarks are part of the horse-trading for votes all the way up to the final vote and there really isn’t time to lay out all of them to be examined. The other reason is that they are so parochial, and at times comical, that they would never stand up on their own in a stand-alone bill, so they have to be added to the annual appropriations bills. These bills are the only bills Congress has to pass and the President has to sign.

A neighbor of mine has a dog that barks a lot. I have anguished a lot about the barking, but really there is nothing I can do. Dogs will bark. There are plenty of great aspects of a dog that I enjoy, including the unquestioning companionship, the loyalty, the wagging tail, etc. There are drawbacks, such as barking (though barking when there is a fire or an intruder is “a good thing”). The goodness far outweighs the negative. Earmarks hold a similar position as a barking dog. Congresspersons are elected to inject their opinions, priorities etc., into the governing process. When it is useful, it is good. When it is banal, it is bad. Welcome to the democratic process. The earmark process can be reformed somewhat, but it will never go away. [Note: from beSpacificOMB Adds New Features to Earmarks Database]

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