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Feb 16, 2009

No Need For Earmarks

Phone calls are enough when your party controls Congress and the Presidency

From my post The Political Dictionary:

earmark   n.   From cattle ranching, where a mark on its ear would direct each cow to its buyer. It is the same for government spending.

Directing federal money to specific local projects in the US goes back to 1817, and further back to the Roman empire. Anyone for Bread and Circuses?

The Congress is supposed to appropriate money for the public good. It is illegal to hand out money in repayment for political support. Earmarks were and are a way to pay contributors and voting groups.

Eliminating earmarks was a major theme in the presidential election. I see earmarks as services delivered for political bribes contributions, and I am amazed that people accept the self-serving arguments made for them.

Congressmen argue that earmarks are their way of developing the most needed projects in their districts. They say their knowledge is better than a federal bureaucrat's. That is beside the point.

  • The federal government is not authorized to collect taxes to distribute favors for congressmen. Developing particular projects is not the goal. The federal government should not develop any project that could be developed by a private company or by the individual state.
  • The federal government is a burden undertaken to provide the most needed, public benefits that only a federal government could provide. It is supposed to operate on as little tax as possible, because taxes are collected by force from productive people.
  • Earmarks increase demands to raise taxes, and earmarks promote corruption by giving congressmen the means to routinely pay off political and financial contributors.

Earmarks have always been with us, by that name or not. But, they were only tolerated as back-room deals. Current earmarks are published, but that does not make them right. They are appropriately seen as a public display of political corruption.

I think the modern increase in earmarks is an adaptation to mixed party government. A Republican majority in congress under Democratic President Bill Clinton wanted assurance that their spending would go to the correct narrow purposes (contributors), congressional districts, or states, and their Democratic colleagues wanted the same. A president has wide discretion on how to spend funds unless legislation specifically restricts him.

The political problem is to avoid any direct payment that says "here is your money". The solution is to allocate money for worthy causes and government agencies. The causes are implemented through the research and development of private companies, and government agencies give contracts to private companies. "Non-profit" companies have presidents and pay salaries, so they are just as useful as ordinary companies. Coincidentally, the preferred companies get the money.

"Green" research and new technologies are quite valuable in this process. An earmark may be for research into (say) "Self-Replenishing Hydroponics". Conveniently, there may be only one company in the country, located in the congressman's district, that is developing that process, so it gets the contract. A phone call can clear up any confusion.

New technologies are not directly comparable to current markets. This makes it harder to say that an earmark is wildly uneconomic, or that the developing company is wasteful. It is research into something new, and much failure is to be expected. It is much safer to deliver no product than to skim money and deliver a sub-standard product.

Legislators claim that earmarks don't increase spending because they merely direct already allocated money to particular purposes. This happens after discussions behind closed doors about how much to allocate in the first place.

Earmarks increased under Republican President Bush, and greatly increased after the Democrats gained control of Congress in 2007. They couldn't trust Bush to distribute money as they wished; they had to write specifics into the law.

Now, Democrats have the Presidency and majorities in the Congress and Senate. Specific earmarks are no longer needed, and Democrats have declared to a grateful public that there are none.

The Democratic announcement was decisive:

[edited] House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) is the chief author of the $800 billion stimulus bill. National Public Radio asked Obey about the lack of direction from Congress about how the money would be spent.

So what? This is an emergency. We've got to simply find a way to get this done as fast as possible and as well as possible, and that's what we're doing. We simply made a decision, which took about three seconds, not to have earmarks in the bill. With all due respect, that's the least important question facing us on putting together this package.

He said that Congress is not responsible if money is misspent, but rather, whoever spends the money poorly is responsible.

Here are some new-style earmarks in the bill:

[edited] A $246 million tax break for Hollywood movie producers, to deduct 50% of the production cost for movies and TV shows made in 2009.

$70 million for supercomputer activities related to climate research. This may be for the National Center for Environmental Prediction in Camp Springs, MD.

$250 million to repair NASA facilities damaged by Hurricane Ike and for maintenance projects at NASA facilities nationwide. This may be for the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.

Senators Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas are on the Appropriations Committee. Their names are not listed with the projects.

"Stimulus Earmarks" lists 32 large earmarks identified by Republicans. These all lack detail. The Democratic majority is now working with a free-spending Democratic President Obama. They don't have to bother with specifics, because Obama will spend these funds according to the backroom wishes of the congress.

Phone Pork
02/13/09 - RiehlWorldView

[edited] Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) cited "Phone Pork" as a new invention in his floor speech. Open ended earmarking might be a better term.

He said that everyone who works in DC knows precisely what will happen after the stimulus bill is passed, because the Democrats simply made the earmarks a type of general aid to the states and federal agencies.

He said politicians will promptly get on the phone to those agencies and tell them what projects they are to spend the money on, threatening to give them trouble on their next round of appropriations if they do not.

Legislators must have detailed lists describing the earmarks, federal agencies, amounts, targeted companies, and donors. Such information could not be trusted to memory. Just one of these lists would shake congress to its foundations.

The Abuse of Earmarks and Needed Reforms
March 2007 - Citizens Against Government Waste by Tom Finnigan

[edited] The mangled and secretive appropriations process gives congressional staffers an enormous amount of discretion. Some Senators have nearly 100 staff members who earn taxpayer-funded salaries up to $160,000. Staffers write most of the appropriations bills and operate behind the same veil of secrecy as Appropriations Committee members.

There are no public records about who requests an earmark. Lawmakers submit written earmark requests to the Appropriation Committees, but all congressional correspondence is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Appropriation Committees prohibit members from commenting about who requested specific provisions. It is difficult to establish a connection unless a member openly takes credit for a project.

See No Earmarks
03/05/09 - Online.WSJ Opinion

An earmark by another name smells just as sweet.

In theory and publicity, the $787 billion stimulus bill contains not a single earmark. That's true according to the new Democratic definition of earmark.

Before President Obama's inauguration, "earmarks" referred to the special appropriations that bypass the normal budget process to cater to special interests and protect the incumbents who inserted them. Now the politicians are much better at disguising their work and the projects are much larger.

Take the $2 billion originally devoted to "one or more near zero emissions power plant(s)." No recipient was named, but that parenthetical "s" is a wry touch, given that only the FutureGen project in Mattoon, Illinois meets the criteria.

This is a demonstration plant for carbon capture "clean coal" technology. It came out of Dick Cheney's 2001 energy task force. The idea is to trap carbon emissions, compress them into liquid, then inject it into the earth. Years of delay earned it the nickname "NeverGen". The Department of Energy ended the experiment last year after costs doubled to $1.8+ billion.

The Illinois Congressional delegation went to work, including Mr. Obama when he was a Senator, and Rahm Emanuel when he was in the House. Chicagoan Dick Durbin is the Senate's No. 2 Democrat and FutureGen's best political friend. He included $1 billion for the project in the final stimulus bill. That $1 billion is about one-eighteenth (5.6%) of all earmarks in 2008.

Consider the last-minute changes that added $8 billion in appropriations for high-speed rail projects in general. Republicans called this an earmark for a 311 mph magnetic-levitation train between Las Vegas, Nevada and Disneyland in California, a project favored by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Strictly speaking, this wasn't an earmark, because the $8 billion will be divvied up on a "competitive basis," with the L.A.-Vegas route eligible for some portion.

Everything is an earmark when nothing is an earmark. A "competitive basis" in Congress does not resemble competition elsewhere. We might expect that Mr Reid, one of the most powerful men in Washington, will lean on the Obama Administration to benefit his business friends. That's the operation of earmarks, even if they are called something else.

McCain fumes over 9,000 earmarks in omnibus budget
03/03/09 - ThinkProgress by Faiz Shakir

Earmarks have not disappeared from the current $410 billion ominbus (general) appropriations bill. There are many excuses. The best one may be paraphrased "We worked on this bill in the past. We will get around to eliminating earmarks in the next bill. We promise."

Does Obama Have a Double Standard on Earmarks?
02/26/09 - Time by Jay Newton-Small and Michael Scherer

[edited] It may seem like yet another example of Washington hypocrisy, but the Obama Administration insists there is no contradiction between its words and actions. The $410 billion budget in question was passed to keep the government running for the rest of fiscal 2009.

Congressional Democrats crafted much of the bill after Obama was elected. Yet, the White House argues that the pork-laden bill, increasing general spending by 8%, is part of the prior Administration's legacy.

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